Veteran actress Sharon Gless reunites with Chicago playwright Claudia Allen (Gless starred in a production of Allen's play Cahoots) and brings all the feistiness and irreverence her longtime fans remember from the acclaimed ’80s TV drama Cagney & Lacey. More importantly, Gless, who’s something of a lesbian icon, comes with a devoted female fan base tailor made for Hannah Free. Director Wendy Jo Carlton has adapted Allen's most popular play here, in which a lifelong female love affair comes to its heartfelt conclusion due to illness. Already achieving success on the gay and lesbian festival circuit, including a closing night slot at San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival, Hannah Free will achieve enthusiastic support from the lesbian community, especially LGBT seniors, when Chicago-based distributor Ripe Fruit Films releases the independent drama in New York. Poor critical reviews and the film's modest production values will hamper chances at crossover business leaving Hannah Free a niche film with limited theatrical potential.
Two childhood girlfriends hide their early feelings of love for one another due to the bigotry of the inhabitants of their rural Michigan town. The more passionate of the two, Hannah (Sharon Gless), moves on to work in faraway places from Alaska to South America. She also comes out as a lesbian. Meanwhile, Rachel (Maureen Gallagher) stays put, gets married and becomes a devoted mother and homemaker. Over the years, Hannah overcomes various obstacles and returns to see her beloved Rachel. Their love for each other remains strong even as Rachel slips into a coma and her family refuses to allow Hannah to see her.
Hannah Free has a powerful message of tolerance with California's passage of Proposition 8 in recent memory as well as similar anti-gay marriage initiatives in other states. Allen (who also wrote the screenplay) also separates Hannah Free from other lesbian dramas by tackling timely issues of aging and health care. Its good intentions aside, Hannah Free is only entertaining and sensual in spots, a disappointment for everyone but the playwright's most ardent fans.
Like The Notebook, another tale of lifelong love, the sweetest moments in Hannah Free are its scenes of two older adults with deep affection for one another. Maureen Gallagher makes little impact as the older Rachel, meanwhile Ann Hagerman, as the "spirit" of Rachel who visits Hannah's bedside, comes off dull compared to Gless' firecracker personality.
Despite the confines of her wheelchair-bound character Gless has energy to spare, proving herself to be as irreverent and independent-minded as ever. Gless' involvement with the film—she’s also an executive producer—further emphasizes its worthy theme that family can mean many different things.
With much of the core drama revolving around an elderly, bed-ridden Hannah, Carlton (Brushfires) fails to bring much-needed energy to the storytelling. She also misses numerous chances to better capitalize on Gless' trademark sass.
Claudia Allen adapts her stage play of the same name and never fully takes advantage of film's freeing possibilities when it comes to telling Hannah and Rachel's story. Dramatic elements that work well on-stage (Hannah frequently talking with the youthful spirit of her beloved Rachel, for example), becomes a clumsy device for looking back at their years together. Scenes from early in their adulthood spent together, even moments of intimacy, are more sluggish than erotic.
Cinematographer Gretchen Warthen films Hannah and Rachel's story matter-of-factly with none of the artistry of standout lesbian dramas like My Summer of Love or Heavenly Creatures.
Allen, a playwright in residence at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater, has written gay spoofs including Xena Live! And The Gays of Our Lives but Hannah Free lacks the comic spark that made past lesbian films Bound, Kissing Jessica Stein and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love arthouse favorites.
What Hannah Free offers are Gless' sass and good intentions. Achieving crossover business, even within the specialty film world, requires more.
Distributor: Ripe Fruit Films
Director: Wendy Jo Carlton
Screenwriter: Claudia Allen, based on her stage play
Cast: Sharon Gless, Taylor Miller, Maureen Gallagher, Ann Hagemann, Kelli Strickland, Jacqui Jackson and Meg Thalken
Producer: Tracy Baim
Running time: 86 mins
Release date: November 27 Chicago, December 11 NY