The urgency of certain subjects can sometimes trump all kinds of executive incompetence. Such is the case of Hannah Free, a beautiful but stiltedly put-together tale of two women who love—and leave—each other throughout their entire lives. The film is often at the brink of daytime soap camp, but it knows never to completely fall into that abyss of saccharine, instead flirting with something much grander: documenting gay love.
Hannah Free, masterfully played by Sharon Gless, is stuck at an old people’s home only a few feet away from her lifetime girlfriend, Rachel (Maureen Gallagher), who is in a coma and guarded by a lesbo-phobic, tricoting daughter who won’t let Hannah visit. Although Hannah is apparently able to speak to, and bicker with, Rachel in her fantasy world, she is only able to physically see her once a college student, Greta (Jacqui Jackson), comes along. Interested in Hannah’s life story, Greta takes turns interviewing her for a project and sneakily wheeling her in the wee hours to catch a glimpse of the comatose Rachel.
The film alternates between awkwardly stagy hospital scenes (it’s based on Claudia Allen’s play) and extremely moving flashbacks of the key moments from the couple’s life throughout the second half of the 20th century. Rachel was married with kids and never left Michigan while Hannah felt compelled to “explore the world” and leave for months on end. “You’ve had your chance to roam. Now, damn it, stay home,” Rachel tells Hannah at the end of their lives together. “It’s not out there. It’s here.”
This string of memories that sutures the film represents a much needed record of private histories that are often too queer to be passed on from generation to generation. Similar to so many gay stories (of love or not), Hannah’s and Rachel’s doesn’t find emotional reiteration in the plastic sleeves of family albums, the properly filed ink of marriage certificates, or in the oral history kept alive by family members. Without the social “glue” that undergirds heterosexual couples together in a kind of inertia (or at least, osmosis), this love dies with the lovers’ bodies.
The real achievement of Hannah Free isn’t in its aesthetics, script or any of the usual measurements we tend to use in assessing the legitimacy of a film. It’s in the way it takes the unseizable ether that is the fate of gay love stories and gives it a body that can be looked at and re-experienced. With the same political urgency of Aimee and Jaguar, but with none of its epic pretensions, the film captures the self-effacing gauche-ness of queer love in a homophobic universe in all of its impossibility. If no one is watching it, is it really happening?