The paucity of lush English costume dramas aimed at lesbians — hetero and gay male auds have their share already — is agreeably redressed in “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.” Dramatizing the life of a 19th-century gentlewoman whose coded journals made her a posthumous historical heroine, James Kent’s BBC production is a hotbed of forbidden passions that is neither too high-minded nor bodice-ripping purple. Though a distrib deal hasn’t been announced yet, U.S. theatrical release is rumored for this fall, and the pic is sure to become a long-term favorite among its target demo.
West Yorkshire heiress Anne Lister (played with ample spark by Maxine Peake) was called Gentleman Jack by some locals for her “unwomanly” behaviors, which included dressing in unfashionable black, mannish attire, along with an avid pursuit of higher learning, business ventures and female companionship, none of which was considered suitable for her gender and class.
Peake’s Anne is first seen here in the 1820s, a bold thirtysomething barely concealing her ardor for pretty Marianna (Anna Madeley), who caves to convention by marrying a wealthy widower (Michael Culkin) twice her age, breaking the secret lover’s heart.
Anne eventually finds solace elsewhere, in an even wealthier heiress (Christine Bottomley) first wooed as an investment partner against the coal-mining concern of an aggressive neighbor (Dean Lennox Kelly). Dismayed observers include Anne’s jealous but unloved “oldest, dearest friend,” Tib (Susan Lynch).
The spinster aunt (Gemma Jones) and bachelor uncle (Alan David) Anne lived with worry and pester her over her unmarried status until she finally, bluntly conveys complete disinterest in gaining a husband. To which they politely acquiesce — one of several times that “Secret Diaries” seems bent on flattering contemporary mindsets rather than reflecting early 19th-century reality. These instances may or may not be historically true, but here they come off as latter-day wish fulfillment.
Some particularly interesting aspects of Lister’s real-life biography are omitted (though not in a shorter BBC docu companion piece, “The Real Anne Lister”). For one thing, she was an early conqueror of several mountains in the Pyrenees.
But scenarist Jane English chooses to sculpt this story as a more narrowly focused quest for love, and as such, it works, if without seriously addressing the issues of class and privilege that permitted Lister’s comparative “freedom.” (We seldom see household servants, never agricultural tenants or coal miners.) Her diaries were first published two decades ago, their racy “secret alphabet” parts not decoded until 150 years after Lister’s death at age 49.
Though modest by the Merchant-Ivory gold standard, production values are handsome enough. In particular, the Yorkshire countryside (Lister was an avid walker of woods) looks gorgeous. Performances are expert.