Hanna Free (2009)


Hannah Free was originally a stage play, written by the Victory Gardens Theater playwrite-in-residence Claudia Allen and presented at the theater in 1992. The film version came about through an alliance between Allen and LGBT media maven Tracy Baim (her Windy City Media Company publishes Windy City Times, OUT!, Nightspots, and Identity as well as a radio show and other important endeavors) along with director/filmmaker Wendi Jo Carlton and editor/producer Sharon Zurek; who had all worked together on the Chicago Gay History Project. Their efforts were augmented by several other noted figures in the Chicago production scene who all worked for little or nothing to see this important project to fruition.


A wonderful example of working with a small budget and making the most of available resources; Hannah Free was shot in 18 days on a budget of $200,000. Virtually every room of a Prairie Avenue District mansion owned by Baim and her sister (the historic Elbridge Keith House) functioned as either a set or production space. The film also shot in the small Illinois town of Beecher.


Hanna Free stars Sharon Gless (of 80’s TV sensation Cagney & Lacey) as Hannah, a free-spirited butch lesbian now in her 70’s and confined to an elder care facility after a snow shoveling mishap. Her lifelong love, Rachel, is in a different wing of the same facility and is in a coma from which Doctors suspect she will never awaken. Rachel’s daughter, Marge, will not allow Hannah to visit Rachel and say her last goodbye; and Hannah has no recourse since she is not a family member and they were never allowed to legally marry. This of course points out the cruelty and hypocrisy of a system which forces second class status upon the life partners of gays and lesbians who are ailing.


Despite being “a message movie” the film tries not to draw its main characters with too broad a brush. Marge is not portrayed merely as an ignorant homophobe, much of her antipathy toward Hannah is sparked by her girlhood memories of strife between Hannah and her mother, which were fomented by Hannah’s frequent absences and occasional infidelity; something which Hannah herself recalls through a series of flashbacks (as well as the good times she and Rachel had together).


Younger Hannah out searching for adventure; something that was a constant bone of contention between she and her homebody lover, Rachel.


This is an important point to include in the film- that there may often be “real” (albeit misguided) reasons other than homophobia for families to want to keep gay partners from visiting their mothers/fathers etc. (just like there may be any number of “reasons” for them to not want straight life partners to visit)— but that just should not matter when the two people in question have a lifelong bond which morally trumps whatever objections are raised. The fact that gays are not allowed to marry leaves them vulnerable to any number of problems when one of them falls ill or dies; inheritance, insurance, child custody etc.- and to deny these rights to them is to deny the principle of equal protection under the law. This is something that may have been lost had Marge been written as merely an uncaring homophobe who was being mean-spirited.


Hannah’s flashbacks span her and Rachel’s entire life together and three different sets of actors play the couple at various stages in their lives. Casting Director L.M. Attea (who also directed the original 1992 stage version) does a marvelous job of finding actors who not only resemble each other but who can also play to the same “vibe” that each character exudes.


A “tween” Hannah and Rachel first experiencing and dealing with the depth and power of their mutual attraction.

The flashback love scenes are extremely well done; just erotic enough to convey the passion of a lesbian relationship without being vulnerable to that tired old “sex-crazed homosexuals” trope that bible thumpers love to haul out whenever gay love is honestly depicted.


I don’t want to spoil the plot so I will cease any further synopsizing and just recommend this movie highly for its touching and honest portrayal of a lifetime of love between two women and for a bracing yet ultimately hopeful look at the state of affairs in the US when it comes to gay marriage and attitudes toward gay love in general.


A now elderly Hanna and Rachel canoodle in the garden.

Hannah Free has been characterized as the “Lesbian Brokeback Mountain” but that is a rather limiting way to describe this film. First off, it is much more than an “issue of the week” kind of movie; and secondly the stage version was written five years before Annie Proulx even wrote the short story that would become Brokeback Mountain. Speaking of writing, there is now a novelization of Hannah Free available!


Although the film does have its problems; some of the tangential characters are a bit crudely drawn (particularly an obnoxious evangelical woman who visits Hannah) and the script gets little talky and “stagebound” at times (always a danger when adapting a play) but this is still a very entertaining and important film that should be seen outside of the usual LGBT film circles.


Jacqui Jackson is fabulous as Greta, an interested party.

There might also be a temptation to think that this film is now outdated— but even with the recent much touted “sea-change” in public attitudes toward gay marriage (and the partial victories in court) it will still be many more years until this injustice is completely remedied across the country, so Hannah Free will unfortunately continue to be painfully relevant for some time to come.