The Appalachian Mountains in the early 1900's is not your typical setting for cinematic romance — heterosexual or lesbian — but then Maggie Greenwald's Songcatcher (2000), which includes both, is not your typical movie.
Set in 1907, Songcatcher stars British actress Janet McTeer as Lily Penleric, a professor of music denied tenure at her university who retreats to her sister Elna's new school in the Appalachian Mountains, only to discover the local residents possess rare Scot-Irish ballads which, if documented, will ensure Lily's professional success.
So Lily sets out to convince the mountain folks, who are naturally suspicious of outsiders, to sing for her, and along the way she meets a variety of interesting mountain people including the hard-bitten Tom (Aidan Quinn), an outspoken critic of Lily's efforts who accuses her of exploiting the mountain folks.
Of course, this means the two are destined to fall in love, which they do, as Janet also begins to fall in love with these people and to rethink her plans and ambitions.
Lily also discovers shortly after she arrives that Elna (played by Jane Adams of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Orange County, and Relativity) and the older woman Harriet (E. Katherine Kerr) with whom she runs the school are lovers. Lily is initially shocked and dismayed, but Elna tells her that Harriet is "the finest person I've ever known," and then simply "we're in love." Over time, Lily grows more supportive of their relationship, even if she never really understands it, blaming it on the women's isolation when Tom correctly and nonjudgmentally guesses that Elna and Harriet are "sweethearts."
Elna (Jane Adams) and Harriet (E. Katherine Kerr)
Not everyone is as tolerant, however, and when one of the local boys sees Elna and Harriet kissing in the woods, disaster ensues. Fortunately, no lesbians are physically harmed in the film, but the bittersweet ending is more bitter than sweet for the lesbian couple.
Lily, Tom and other members of the community stand up for the women, however, and the audience is clearly meant to identify with their outrage at the mistreatment the lesbian couple receives.
Greenwald's thorough research of the time period shows in her meticulous attention to detail and in the interesting and complex Appalachian characters like Tom's grandmother (Pat Carroll) and the orphan teenage girl Deladis (Emmy Rossum) living with Elna and Harriet.
Lily (Janet McTeer) teaches Deladis (Emmy Rossum) about music
Lily and Tom's evolving relationship is well-developed and realistic, as well, and the acting is superb all around.
The Appalachian music is beautiful and integrates wonderfully into the story from the first time Deladis sings "Barbara Allen," but the singing scenes drag on a bit too long in places, especially towards the end.
Although overall the film avoids cliches and stereotypes, there are a handful of scenes and characters that are too contrived (like the panther in the woods); the trouble that befalls the lesbian couple is also predictable, if not unrealistic. And while McTeer is very convincing as Lily, her eyes seem to be perpetually widened in shock, and I occasionally found this and McTeer's other odd facial expressions in the film distracting.
But despite these flaws, and the fact that the lesbian couple doesn't have a happy ending, Songcatcher is a truly enchanting film that very effectively draws you into the lives of these people. It doesn't gloss over the difficulties faced by the Appalachian people or by women during that time period, but it is ultimately a story about women's perseverance through both economic hardship and social injustice.
Although the focus of the film is on Lily and her journey, Adams's performance as Elna is powerful and memorable.
For lesbian viewers, the real draw of Songcatcher is likely to be the rare and unusually sensitive portrayal of lesbianism in an American historical drama. Elna's quiet defense of her relationship with Harriet and her endurance in the face of social condemnation is moving and ultimately empowering, and the events surrounding their relationship remind us both of how far we've come, and how far we have yet to go.
Songcatcher is now available on DVD