James Kent’s The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister, based on a Regency-era businesswoman, diarist and lesbian (Maxine Peake), shows her recruiting, stalking and seducing women in ways that homophobes imagine us doing. Those women also aren’t as old and intellectual as she is, and disposes of them when they’re unnecessary. When she decides on Marianna Lawton (Anne Madeley), she’s possessive and can’t meet deal with the latter on ‘realistic’ grounds. She also admits her heartbreak to Marianna that is cheesier than a George Lucas film. The men in Anne’s life are either boors like suitor/fortune hunter/competitor Christopher Rawson (Dean Lennox Kelly) or oblivious coots like her uncle (Alan David) or Marianna’s husband Charles (Michael Culkin) – hearing the name Charles Lawton is a bit distracting. We also know it’s the Regency era because the B-roll footage of say, Anne’s home in Shibdean Hall is often bordered by plant life. And yes, I haven’t read her diaries so I guess I shouldn’t judge, but I’d be disappointed if the woman in the TV movie is the one who existed.
I do have to admire a few things about it, like its frank depiction on female sexuality, discarding the old ways of showing sex before 1960 is something hollowed and unconsummated. Or that the female character’s relationships with other women aren’t always sexualized, the platonic encounters balancing the leering. Peake’s performance takes the role to the ugly places that its script, written by Jane English, requires and the camera follows her being upset or crying instead of trying to hide her anguish publicly, the latter being more of a cliché actually. She also doesn’t let herself be intimidated by the men or some richer women the same way that more famous actresses would in her place. that these other women are aware of fortune hunters and thus are smarter than they seem. The moment when Anne wakes up ‘from a feverish dream’ happens a bit late for me to sympathize with her but it happens, as she finally works on the fruits of her estate and finds a business partner and wife Ann Walker (Christine Bottomley) that she can maturely deal with. Also appearing is Gemma Jones as Anne’s aunt. 3/5.