Hannah Free

Wolfe Video,

Wendy Jo Carlton

Claudia Allen
From her play

Sharon Gless,
Maureen Gallagher,
Kelli Strickland,
Ann Hagemann,
Taylor Miller
Jacqui Jackson,
Meg Thalken

Unrated, 86 minutes

A Star Turn From Sharon Gless
by Michael D. Klemm
A shorter version also appeared on, June, 2010
Posted online, May, 2010

It is a scenario that was once too familiar. An elderly gay man or lesbian lies dying in the hospital while homophobic family members deny visitation rights to a longtime companion. That is one of the conflicts driving the drama in Hannah Free, a 2009 film directed by Wendy Jo Carlton. The three-hanky script by Claudia Allen is adapted from her play. Sharon Gless (Queer As Folk, Cagney and Lacey) delights her longtime lesbian fanbase by finally playing a Sapphic sister on the screen. She steals the show as a boisterous old tomboy who wants to see her lover again one more time before she dies.

Hannah (Gless, and Kelli Strickland as a young woman in the flashbacks) is confined to her bed in a second rate nursing home. Her lifelong lover, Rachel (old: Maureen Gallagher, young: Ann Hagemann), is in a coma, and on life support, in the same hospital. Rachel's born again daughter, Marge (Taylor Miller), has ordered the nursing staff to keep Hannah away from her mother. Throughout the nonlinear film, scenes from their relationship are recalled in flashback. Both grew up in a small, midwestern town. We see them as children playing in a barn and later making love there as grown ups. Hannah became a freewheeling, unapologetic dyke. Rachel wanted to be a housewife and got married. Widowed early, Rachel never re-married and shacked up with her girlhood friend, Hannah. But Hannah had a streak of wanderlust and was wont to impulsively spend a few months in places like Alaska, Paris and Brazil; or join the WACs during World War II.

And this is the central conflict. Hannah's absences greatly effected her partner. Rachel wanted conventionality, Hannah sought adventure and thrived on change. An angry Rachel was always still there when Hannah returned and their relationship somehow survived into old age, despite a heterosexual marriage, WWII, an affair and finally family members in denial.

Hannah is visited by a young lesbian named Greta (Jacqui Jackson) who wants to interview the older woman about the Great Depression. We soon learn that there is more to her agenda and a twist involves her lineage. Greta becomes Hannah's knight in shining armor and offers to return at 3 a.m. and sneak Hannah into Rachel's room. Later that night, Greta pushes Hannah's wheelchair past oblivious nurses towards a date with destiny.

A number of plot devices are employed to keep the film from degenerating into complete schmaltz; some are more successful than others. The modern-day hospital scenes are broken up by nostalgic period flashbacks that dramatize the highs and lows of their relationship. These scenes are handsomely done and are amongst the film's best. During the framing story, Hannah delivers frequent monolgues as she writes in her diary and her cantankerous thoughts add much needed comic relief. Scenes that involve a nosy woman who delivers the mail, and another who proselytizes religion, are a bit forced - ditto for an annoying old man who keeps forgetting where his room is. The plot, however, is strong enough to overcome any shortcomings in the storytelling. Hannah Free was made with the best of intentions and, for the most part, it satisfies.

It also gets a little weird. Hanna holds conversations with the younger Rachel. They often bicker; Rachel teases Hannah about Greta and these scenes are funny. These chats are undoubtedly in Hannah's mind but a line is occasionally crossed in which it is implied that they really are speaking and that the comatose Rachel's spirit is asking for help. The film's stage roots are evident in these scenes and the results are mixed. Films that attempt to retain a play's theatricality can be interesting. I've championed a few films in the past for successfully doing so, but this one doesn't always find the right balance. Thankfully, the director avoids the worst cliches and Rachel's appearances are not accompanied by a ghostly glow or ethereal music.

The relationship between the two women is certainly unique. Rachel tried to enjoy the best of both worlds; juggling church socials and baked good sales while still living with her tomboy girlfriend. "You always thought we were the only girls that did what we did," Hannah tells Rachel. She also chides Rachel for marrying the dullest man she could find in an effort to escape her father's temper. "You tried to mourn him," Hannah observes, "But it was always me you wanted to cook for." Rachel does love Hannah but she also has her limits. She is less than thrilled when a Brazilian missionary follows Hannah home from one of her jaunts, and her anger knows no bounds when Hannah - at this point in her 60s - expresses a desire to visit the Himalayas.

Sharon Gless is outstanding in the role and runs with it to the finish line. She will surely remind some viewers of Debbie Novotny on Queer As Folk but that isn't a bad thing. Gless does crotchety well but she can also break your heart with a gesture or facial expression, or just the slightest change in vocal inflection. She can be a remarkably subtle actress and then channel Ruth Gordon a minute later and yet make it all utterly believable. As a vehicle for Gless, Hannah Free soars. I have to be honest; there are more than a few clunky lines of dialogue but Gless knows how to bring them off. The acting by each of the actresses playing Hannah and Rachel is superb, the others are a mixed bag (some are cartoons).

There is great chemistry between each of the Hannah-Rachel pairings. Their love scenes are amongst the most beautiful between two women ever filmed. One of the nicest moments is one where both are old and lay cuddled together in bed; something that is rarely seen in the movies. The film's delights, and there are many, outnumber the parts that are stilted. A sudden third act shift doesn't entirely work but the film's final shot is as haunting as they come. Gless adds gravitas to a film that, while flawed, still resonates with raw emotions. Hannah Free was a hit on the festival circuit and should prove succssful on DVD.


Sharon Glass also appears in:
Queer As Folk