The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (Director: James Kent): I think my favourite part of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, the BBC biopic about the titular 19th century Yorkshire industrialist, is that during the climactic romantic moment when our heroine wins the affections of a suitable mate and leans in for the kiss, she quickly follows this up by lifting up her lover’s dress and giving her a quick finger-bang. Now if we could just slip something like that into a Jane Austen adaptation…
It doesn’t come off quite as shockingly as it sounds, given that Miss Lister (Maxine Peake) is a bit renegade, unapologetically grasping for all she wants in life, regardless of social implications or propriety. It’s respectable and ardent, but also borders on egocentric, especially considering how idealistic and solipsistic she can be when not acting out of vengeance. As a result, character identification is minimal, which is problematic when the ire of the film depends on this almost entirely.
This expectation is apparent from the opening act, when Lister is unceremoniously dumped by her secret gal pal Mariana (Anne Madeley), whose marriage to the much older Charles Lawton (Michael Culkin) is announced unexpectedly at a social gathering. She pleads, she cries, she locks herself in her room—really everything that a devastated lover might do in a bodice-drama. The thing is that we have no idea who these characters are, how they met, or what their history is, or how they see the world, and so on, so it’s difficult to care about whatever it is they’re going on about.
Thankfully, things pick up later in the film while Anne continues to pursue the married Mariana, as her loyal and likable friend Tib (Susan Lynch) makes her own romantic interests known. This love triangle gives the drama some much-needed heft, and offers a diversion from Lister’s frustrating personality. Mariana is a bit of a twit, to be sure, but her disposition is understandable, given her grounding in reality. Similarly, Tib’s tendency to say the inappropriate, and wear her feelings on her sleeve, makes her far more accessible than the titular heroine.
But aside from a frustrating protagonist and a minor plot, this is a professionally assembled piece with solid acting all around, decent art design and competent, if slightly flat, direction. It’s just something more akin to a Sunday afternoon diversion than a full-blown theatrical experience.