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Knight at the Movies: Hannah Free; film note
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2009-09-23

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I'm used to grousing about the lack of gay themed movies in theatres but how about not just the lack but the disappearance of lesbian ones altogether?

Where did all the lesbian movies go? Straight to DVD seems to be the answer. And it's not just the lesbian pictures, either. Queer films of every stripe have become a rare commodity in movie theatres. This isn't just a case of audiences not supporting Our Own Kind ( though the dismal box office numbers on the critically acclaimed Milk might suggest otherwise ) , it also highlights a not very pleasant truth: just because a movie has queer themes and characters doesn't make it a good movie. Far, far from it. Like their overwhelming straight counterparts a lot ( and I mean a lot ) of the queer movies are mostly junk, too—or at least, not very good.

All of which makes the arrival of the genuinely arresting Hannah Free, the locally shot lesbian centric movie starring Sharon Gless, opening this Friday at the Siskel Film Center, something to take note of. The movie, with a screenplay by out writer Claudia Allen ( based on her acclaimed stage play ) is a character drama that spans the lives of its title character ( played at intervals by Gless and Kelli Strickland ) and the love of her life, Rachel ( played by Maureen Gallagher and Ann Hagemann ) . From childhood on Hannah has been the free spirit, Rachel the conventional one. The one constant between them is a fierce love and though Hannah is bitten by the travel bug she always returns to Rachel who has married, given birth to a daughter and son, and been widowed.

Circumstances find Hannah and Rachel both confined to a nursing home—Rachel in a prolonged coma and Hannah feisty and mad as hell because Rachel's grown daughter Marge ( Taylor Miller ) won't let her see mom "because you might upset her." Hannah just wants to say a proper goodbye but the indifferent, unfeeling staff and the immovable Marge stand in her way—a particularly bitter blow because the object of her affections is just down the hall. Like many other one-last-wish-before-I-die movies ( A Trip to Bountiful, Garbo Talks, et al. ) , the quest for dignity in the face of death provides an emotionally fraught, compelling journey.

In Hannah's case, as she reflects back on her on-again/off-again life with Rachel she finds she is haunted—sometimes literally—by the young, vibrant but prim Rachel who fought her love and desire for Hannah. "You always thought we were the only ones who did what we did," Hannah reminds the ghost of the younger Rachel with a laugh. Hannah writes in a diary and finds another repository for memories of her life with Rachel—good ( often focusing on the couple's frequent lovemaking ) , bad ( usually centered on the closet vs. coming out and Hannah's wanderlust ) and cutesy-poo ( unnecessary, cloying scenes with the childhood Hannah and Rachel kissin' in the barn and a'skippin' through the dappled fields ) . This is Greta ( Jacqui Jackson ) a young woman ostensibly doing research on the Great Depression who befriends Hannah. ( The different time periods covered in the film are hazy with the nursing home sequences set in the '90s ) .

Allen's writing is beautifully simple—her characters talk like real people who often have moments of lyrical insight ( "I'm refining myself down to the essentials," Hannah comments at one point ) and Allen relieves even the most emotionally gripping moments with a knack for black humor. Allen gifts Gless—who gives a tremendous, full bodied performance in her first starring film role—and the rest of the predominantly female cast with a host of forceful and quirky characters. Gless, who has become an indelible part of our television history thanks to "Cagney & Lacey," "Queer as Folk" and many other TV parts brings her vast experience with emotionally difficult characters to bear on the role and the movie crackles whenever she's on screen.

Gless doesn't take over the movie—this is definitely an ensemble piece—but she brings to the role a certain set of expectations and a familiarity on the part of the audience that the other actresses can't hope to achieve ( nor do they really need to ) . We're primed to like Gless and her feistiness, no matter the character; to root for her and director Wendy Jo Carlton has the good sense to acknowledge this and keeps the camera on her star, utilizing long takes that allow room for the lengthy, emotionally laden scenes to unfold.

Though clearly made on a small budget the material and performances are strong enough to outweigh most of the quibbles I might have had on that score. "It's a depressingly masculine world," Judy Parfitt tells Kathy Bates at one point in the film Dolores Claiborne but a labor of love movie like Hannah Free with its feminist point of view—shot in Chicago by a coterie of lesbian artists which include Allen, Carlton, editor Sharon Zurek, score composer Martie Marro—who all produced along with Tracy Baim ( Full Disclosure: Publisher of Windy City Times ) —beautifully defies that edict for audiences of every persuasion.

Hannah Free plays Sept. 25-Oct. 1 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Sharon Gless will attend a benefit screening, along with cast and crew, on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m. followed by a gala reception with food and drinks at the Renaissance Hotel. See www.hannahfree.com .

Film note:

—Queer Cinema 102, the film series co-sponsored by the Queer Film Society and the Center on Halsted focusing on offbeat camp "classics"—the horrible, the perverse, the hilarious, and the fabulously bad—chosen and hosted by gay film critics—ends on Monday, September 28 with the rarely seen The Lonely Lady. This 1983 travesty stars Pia Zadora as a "literate" screenwriter forced to exchange her Lilliputian body and perform other tawdry sins for a chance at success in depraved Tinsel Town. The film won six Golden Raspberry Awards including Worst Picture and Actress. The screening, hosted by Gay Chicago Magazine film critic Charlie Shoquist, will take place in the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, at 7 p.m. Admission is a suggested donation of $5 at the door and an audience Q&A will follow the screening. HannahFree.com is helping to sponsor the series. Further information is at www.queerfilmsociety.org .

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site.


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