Hannah Free is not a great work of art, says CN Lester, but this love story makes some passionate and timely political points

From the opening credits spooling across a idealised rural Michigan, the folksy soundtrack, the tie-in novelisation with the leading publishers of lesbian romance, Bella Books, and the presence of Cagney and Lacey’s Sharon Gless (both as actor and producer), the viewer of Hannah Free can expect an American-as-apple-pie take on Sapphic love and loss.

Hannah and Rachel knew that they belonged together ever since their first innocent kisses as children. Despite the pressures of society, the unwelcome (though brief) presence of a husband, the challenge of raising twins and Hannah’s unquenchable wanderlust, they remained true to each other, and passionate in the expression of their love over the decades. But as the movie opens we find Hannah incapacitated in a nursing home that refuses to acknowledge her identity, kept apart from her comatose lover by Rachel’s bigoted daughter and unjust laws that deny their partnership.

“I’m her family!” Hannah cries at more than one moment during the drama, and this point, the dismissal of queer familial ties, is the keystone around which the story is constructed: the fact that nothing personal can fail to be political when LGBT people are still denied full human rights.

Drawn out side by side are Hannah’s struggles to see her partner, to be with her as she dies, and the story of their lives together: flashbacks to Hannah’s travels, cosy scenes of domesticity and tenderness from their 20s to their 70s and touchingly sincere sex scenes far removed from any L-Word style glossiness and all the better for it. Hannah is aided in her efforts to be recognised as Rachel’s next of kin by Greta, a college student who is more connected to the family than she first lets on, and Hannah’s loneliness is relieved, if only momentarily, by journal writing and visions of her lover.

There is much to admire in Hannah Free. A timely political point is dealt with in a way that can hardly fail to induce compassion in the viewer, and the equally valid secondary theme, that of the ill treatment and infantilisation of older people in much of Western society, is assuredly handled. It is rare to see a positive depiction of female masculinity on screen, much less as embodied in an older woman, and Gless’ Hannah, with her handsome smile and old-school butch styling, is a sight for sore eyes. Even more unusual is a frank depiction of older women’s sexuality, something director Wendy Jo Carlton manages with aplomb, making Hannah and Rachel’s lovemaking not only emotionally stirring but also unashamedly erotic. The main actors give vital, persuasive performances, and the frequent touches of humour lighten what might otherwise be something of a melodramatic tragedy.

It is rare to see a positive depiction of female masculinity on screen, much less as embodied in an older woman, and Gless’ Hannah, with her handsome smile and old-school butch styling, is a sight for sore eyes

Unfortunately, this movie suffers from many of the same problems as other queer films on the independent circuit. The production values are low, and small but consistent oversights in such areas as set dressing bring the viewer up short and spoil the believability of the production. The lighting, staging and music are all redolent of a made-for-TV movie, and the secondary performers over-act wildly. There are some off-putting moments of lesbian chauvinism, the ‘villains’ of the piece are crudely drawn and the last-act inclusion of paranormal activity does not sit well with the overall tenor of the piece.

As a work of art, I’m afraid that Hannah Free is something of a disappointment. However, the viewer looking to find an outspoken and impassioned defence of love, sensuality and human dignity may well find much that delights.

(Hannah Free was released on DVD in early July, extras include: interviews with Sharon Gless, writer Claudia Allen, director Wendy Jo Carlton, and the cast and crew, bloopers and a behind the scenes featurette.)

CN Lester is a musician, academic and transgender activist