Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The love story would have a lot more impact if it were more sparingly told."

In every major war in human history where women have been forbidden to play a role, there have been some who cross dressed and fought anyway - sometimes because of their commitment to the cause, sometimes for money, sometimes because it seemed safer than life as a civilian woman in territories occupied by soldiers. There have also been trans men and non-binary people trying to find their place in and around such conflicts, and drawing neat lines between these identities and experiences is frequently impossible. What we do know is that not all of them went back to living in the roles society had set out for them afterwards. For some, life as a man was worth all the risks it brought, from the hazards of battle to the challenges of remaining hidden in times of peace.

Whitney Hamilton's film follows the story of one such person whom, since he retained a masculine identity, it is probably best to refer to using male pronouns. Played by the director herself, Henry first assumes that identity after the death of his brother but is found to be female-bodied upon being taken prisoner. Seriously injured, he is cared for by a doctor who refuses to let him be hung along with other captives, but acquires male clothes again and absconds in an effort to reach his sweetheart Virginia (Virginia Newcomb) who is in danger of having to marry a man she abhors in order to save her farm.

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The film is adapted from Hamilton's 2011 short and there's some really interesting material at the heart of it, but why anyone thought it was a good idea to extend it to more than two hours is a mystery. Whilst the first part of the story carries a degree of tension, subsequent events unfold with no real energy or sense of driving narrative and the characters are not sufficiently well developed to keep viewers interested for their sake. The non-chronological development of the story sometimes becomes incoherent, making it hard to figure out what's happening to who when - and not in an intriguing way. There are numerous scenes which add nothing to the story and Hamilton falls back too often on clich├ęs of the romance genre. The love story would have a lot more impact if it were more sparingly told.

It's a shame because the larger story has important points to make, not least in the way that it explores some of the multiple cultures making up America. We tend to look at the Civil War period as one in which the country was divided neatly between Union and Confederate philosophies, notwithstanding that both of these had been overlaid on a land full of complex traditions of its own - and that, as in any other era of history, there were numerous individuals unable to find a place anywhere. Like Ted Geoghegan's 2017 thriller Mohawk, Union explores the way that queer people, marginalised by white society, often found support within Native communities. Henry is aided at various stages by local Shawnee people who interpret him as two spirit (having a male and a female soul in the same body) and conclude that he has magical abilities - or will do, as long as he accepts himself.

Using a Shawnee storyteller to frame the action is in keeping with the spirit of the film but further saps its energy. Viewers with a specific interest in the period or themes might still find it worth watching, and there's some good costume work, but it struggles to hold the attention purely as a piece of drama.

Reviewed on: 18 Mar 2020
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What begins as a disguise becomes an identity that changes everything for a cross-dressing soldier in the American Civil War.
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Director: Whitney Hamilton

Writer: Whitney Hamilton

Starring: Whitney Hamilton, Virginia Newcomb, Jonathan Kobler, Susan McCain

Year: 2018

Runtime: 135 minutes

Country: US


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