“Hannah Free” – Critical Movie Review

Hannah Free is a film based on writer Claudia Allen’s play of the same name. The plot is centered around two lesbian female protagonists, Hannah and Rachel, who spend a lifetime loving each other, right until their old age, despite their differing circumstances and unavoidable societal taboos. Their collective journey begins in a conservative, non-descript town of the Mid-West in the 1920’s where they grow up as childhood friends, and destined to become eternal lovers.

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However, they’re also destined to be separated most of their lives and thus, continue along different paths. Hannah has an eventual spiritual reunion with Rachel upon her death, from where the film is shown in flashback.

Hannah, a freethinking radical (played by Sharon Gless for older and Kelli Strickland for younger), grows into an arrant butch, breaking down the conservative mores of her surroundings, living her life to the fullest, taking everything in her stride, traveling around the world, taking many female lovers; but deep inside, she remains committed to her one and only true love. Rachel (Maureen Gallaher for older and Ann Hagemann as younger), on the other hand, has neither the ambition nor the will to fully express her sexuality, and gives in to worldly expectations of being married, having children, and living all her life in the same Michigan town. However, her one foot forever remains in the closet and she cannot shake off her association with Hannah.

The two eventually meet in an old age nursing home, separated by a floor on top. Hannah is forbidden to spend time with a coma-ridden Rachel, by her homophobic daughter Marge (Taylor Miller), who blames Hannah for ruining her mother’s life. A delirious Hannah feels a spirit of a younger Rachel visit her from time to time, and she pens down her thoughts on the meeting, much to the bafflement of onlookers who think she’s talking to herself alone. In a similar way, the dying Rachel is visited by a younger version of Hannah and they rue in concert about the missed opportunities in life when they could have been together for life, but couldn’t do it.

The lead characters of Hannah Free are set against the backdrop of the history of America, and lead up to present times, where same-sex relationships are not just no longer disapproved of, but have been actually legalized in all states, and celebrated as a normal lifestyle. Among other elements in the film, the characters run an entire gamut of personality development in their aging process which shows a complete aging process.

In her youth days, Rachel’s initial impression formation was hesitant about rebelling against authority and bringing out her lifestyle in the open. However, with the onset of middle age, she was willing to modify her impression from the negative to the positive (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, p.311), and be more accepting of her feelings about Hannah.

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Hannah, on the other hand, who in her youth hated to be tied down by circumstances, mellowed to become someone who craves love and longing. Also, with age, as shown in the movie, emotions became a processing goal for both these women, the guiding factor for further action (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, p.321), so their personalities merged together in being more comfortable about each other’s reality.

In the film scenes where Hannah and Rachel are shown communicating to each other’s spirits, there’s plenty of evidence to be shown about eventual age differences in development of sensory memory (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, p.188), and how older individuals relate to their long-term memories. According to the information processing theory, younger people tend to filter out everything – conversations, incidents and other memoirs which is not the case with older people, who relish the attention to detail while not attention switching (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, p.190).

However, on the other hand, dividing attention among the most common activities becomes a lot more difficult job to do (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, p.194), which is clearly visible in the film, and also both characters show evidence of age-related slowing down (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, p.200).

Other facets of ageing shown in the film include depicting a tendency of infantilization for the lead characters, the use of patronizing speech and the loosening of person-environment interactions (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, p.185). Also, the dying and bereavement scenes for Rachel are laced with a higher sense of spiritual communion (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006, p.405).

The film also covers different varieties of the ageing experience for both the lead characters, depending on both their race, and social circumstances (Moody, 2006, p.135). Since, both protagonists in this case are White and female, we have to look at the next indicator – economic advantage – it is shown in the beginning of the film that Rachel comes from a more middle-class, privileged background compared to Hannah, which fostered her strong-willed independent spirit, and consequently, isolation and depressive state of mind.

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It has been suggested that old age often becomes a leveling influence in the former case, and as a result, older women from privileged backgrounds face fewer psychological problems than those who don’t have it (Moody, 2006, p.142).

Another dimension is of self-concept and social relationships. The film reflects multiple psychological dimensions for the character of Hannah including self-acceptance, autonomy and self-determination, mastery of surrounding environment, beliefs that give purpose to life and a sense of personal growth and development over a life course (Moody, 2006, p.22). For Rachel, her cognitive adaptation is more in terms of “selective optimization with compensation” which proves a definition of successful aging (Moody, 2006, p.23).

For older people, this means narrowing the scope of their capabilities to one that they find most useful according to their own individual value sets (Moody, 2006, p.23). In Rachel’s case, this eventually led her to a vegetative coma state, which means she wasn’t able to overcome her limitations to become something else in life.

Hannah Free does come with its own set of stereotypes and generalizations which was portrayed on its lead characters. Hannah, is shown as a stereotypical butch, according to physical appearance by her hair cropped close to the head. Rachel, in contrast, is shown as the demure “girly” kind. It is naturally depicted that the butch is more brash, adventurous sort and the feminine partner plays up to her expectation as the softer one.

A survey of LGBT relationships suggest there is no correlation between the outward physical appearance of a lesbian woman, and her general hobbies and interests in life, and it may be construed as thoughts of prejudgment (Banks, 2008).

Another often used stereotyping is shown in terms of the butch-kind of female (Hannah) being up to no good, and never becoming a successful parent. Rachel, in comparison is portrayed as a dedicated, loyal wife to her husband, and a good mother to her children. Based on lesbian characters I know from my own life, plenty of lesbian women of any outward appearance indeed have the capability to make good mothers and parents.

The last stereotype in the film which is also not truly representative of American culture and society, is about the lack of acceptance for homosexuals in this day and age. It is not entirely true, although with exceptions.

True, there are bigots out there, but even in less progressive states, discrimination against someone in a nursing home based on their sexuality is illegal today. Moreover, Michigan is by far, a highly liberal state which does not exactly match with the theme of homophobia portrayed in the present times. It is no wonder though that Hollywood still shies away from the subject of displaying same-sex (or for that matter, interracial) unions in a matter-of-the-fact way, instead adding a baggage of controversy to it, which doesn’t really prove to be very natural.

However, in the same breath, it may be added that Hannah Green did reflect a few idiosyncrasies of American culture. There are indeed plenty of Christian evangelists who frown upon the idea of same-sex unions and even commit hate crimes against those who lead this lifestyle (Holden, 2010). Rachel’s daughter, Marge, is shown as the quintessential example of this hate brigade. Her hatred and dislike for Hannah borders on the vengeful, but can be perfectly understood and correlated with real life experiences.

But, if there was a strong commentary in this undercurrent of hatred and homophobia, it was represented by Rachel’s great-grand-daughter Greta (Jacqui Jackson) who came as an angel for Hannah, and conspired secretly to make sure her last wishes to be with her long-lost love are honored. Greta’s heated arguments with Marge conveys her own desire for empathy, tolerance and other values that have been still missing in the older generations, and will be overcome only in the coming future.

Hannah Green can be used as a study subject that addresses a myriad of psychological issues facing homosexual people, and the existing prejudices they face from their surroundings. The audience for this film essentially comprises of the younger generation who have far greater acceptance for same-sex rights compared to older generations.

References

Banks, A.J. (2008). Explaining butch and femme classifications. Helium Publications. Web.

Cavanaugh, J.C. (2006). Adult development and aging. Cengage Learning. 185, 188, 190, 194, 200, 311, 321, 405.

Holden, S. (2010). Even at Death’s door, a lesbian couple still find peace elusive. New York Times.Web.

Moody, H. (2006). Aging: concepts and controversies. Sage Publications. 22, 23, 135, 142.

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