TV film review: The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010), directed by James Kent
When I read what this film was about I was intrigued. A businesswoman in the first half of the 1800s – who is also gay. You rarely hear about businesswomen in those days, regardless of their sexuality.
Anne Lister (Maxine Peake) lives with her aunt (Gemma Jones) and uncle (Alan David) somewhere in Yorkshire. She has an affair with Mariana (Anna Madeley), and they’re passionately in love … which comes to an abrupt end when Mariana agrees to marry the old Charles Lawton (Michael Culkin). Anne is heartbroken by this betrayal, and starts grooming Miss Browne (Tina O’Brien) in a rather creepy fashion.
Meanwhile, Anne’s best friend “Tib” (Susan Lynch) has the hots for her too, but Anne is still focused on Mariana. When aunt and uncle Lister decide it’s time for Anne to consider marrying, they put her in touch with their next door neighbour, Mr Rawson (Dean Lennox Kelly), whom Anne is completely unimpressed by. She’s still in love with Mariana, and is waiting for her old husband to die so that they can be together again. However, he seems in better health than Mariana gives the impression of. The film ends some time after Anne goes into a business venture with Ann Walker (Christine Bottomley).
And I guess I just gave a synopsis or plot summary rather than basic premise. Easy to do with things that are based on historical people, I suppose.
The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is a story of love and passion, and gives a great sense of the times. You could live as “companions” together, but realistically, as a woman you were required to marry a man to secure your fortunes. Love and marriage? Strictly heterosexual. Firing a gun? Well, just the sort of thing a Lady should not be doing, but which of course Anne Lister did.
Why did I say “grooming” rather than “courting” the young Miss Brown? Because it wasn’t courting, it was manipulating her and trying to make her into something which the girl had perhaps never intended. Not to mention how very uncomfortable she seems with Anne’s advances. It’s not something that develops naturally, like with Ann Walker, but is rather forced, and that’s never a good idea.
The diaries were written in a code, based on some form of mathematics, and it took about 150 years before they were fully decoded. In those days you really couldn’t write honestly about your homosexual love affairs, because if anyone ever caught you there would probably be hell to pay. Perhaps not being burned at the stakes, like you would have been 200 years earlier, no doubt, but your reputation would be shot to pieces and I guess no one would want to do business with you.
Thank goodness women are free to do as we like now, at least in the society where we live. If we want to shoot a gun, own a property or run a mine – or just simply not get married at all – we’re free to do so. I admire Anne for sticking up for herself and going against the established rules of society and doing her own thing. My kind of person!
As for the production itself it felt a little confusing at times, as to how things happened and why, but the script as such was good, the acting really good, and they weren’t exactly shy about sex either. Not in a voyeuristic “let’s watch the lezzos get it on!” way, but in a way that if it had been a man and a woman doing what was done, no one would’ve batted an eyelid.
All in all, a fascinating look into a part of history we normally associate with very prim correctness. This is the time Jane Austen came from, but if you’re expecting Jane Austen’s emotional restraint, you are sorely mistaken. This is wild and free, like the Yorkshire moors the Brontës were so fond of.
3.8 out of 5 wedding rings.