LGBT Movies: The Hanging Garden (1997)

This weekend the cinemas feature many tales of queer suffering and death. I wanted to highlight a film about surviving trauma. In Thomas Fitzgerald’s The Hanging Garden a gay man (Chris Leavins) visits his estranged family after ten years away. They remain toxic but he has changed. Things grows surreal when his teenage self appears (Troy Veinotte) and enacts an alternate history. The story telling is choppy. There are too many ideas to develop them all. But the creative images stuck with me.

I’ll start the recap with a content warning. This film discusses abuse, eating disorders, fat shaming, sexual assault and self-harm.

Act One: Present

Prologue: A House in Nova Scotia
(KID WILLIAM is hit by his father. TEEN WILLIAM (obese) tends the garden. Adult WILLIAM (slender) returns home for the first time in ten years. The stress gives him an asthma attack.)

Scene One: Wedding Reception
SISTER: Feck! Hold up me fecking wedding dress so I can pee.
WILLIAM: Sure sis.
MOM: You’re so thin. Do you have AIDS?
WILLIAM: No mom.
DAD (Drunk): Esss my shooon! (Passes out.)
WILLIAM: Classic dad.  
VIOLET (A surly child): So, you’re my big brother. Where the feck have you been?
WILLIAM: The big city. Who are you?

Scene Two: Kitchen
( William ignores the food. He watches Kid William binge eat.)
MOM: Do you have a friend? Do you still hate me?
WILLIAM: I have a friend. I don’t hate you. With sis married there’s nothing keeping you here.
MOM: Fair point. Bye Felicia!
(Mom packs a bag and leaves.)  

Act Two: Past

Scene Three: Father’s House – 10 Years Ago
DAD: Water my garden! Cook my dinner! Don’t give me any lip!
(Dad hits Teen William. Mother waits on Dad hand and foot.)
TEEN SISTER: Hurry the feck up William! It’s time for the school dance.
(BLONDE, a bisexual twink, flirts with both Sister and William.)
MOM: You’re back from the dance? Take off those wet things before you come in.
BLONDE: Good idea. Wanna fool around?
(Blonde and Teen William are caught fooling around. Later…)
MOM: William, this is a sex worker. She’s going to straighten you out. For Jesus.
(Afterwards William goes into the garden and hangs himself from a tree.)

Act Three: Future

Scene Four: The Garden. Present Day
(Violet chases Kid William. Adult William finds Teen William hanging from the tree.)
WILLIAM: Oh, so that’s why it’s called The Hanging Garden. Did you survive? Or am I dead?
TEEN WILLIAM: Neither. Both. Maybe we’re in alternate timelines. Perhaps I represent the past you left behind.
(Dad sees Teen William and screams.)
WILLIAM: You see him?
SISTER: We see him every fecking day. Now that mom’s left, I’ll be stuck with dad. You can take your daughter.
WILLIAM: Violet!?
VIOLET: Gotta love me!

Scene Five: The Next Morning
BLONDE: Missed you. Wanna fool around?
WILLIAM: You just married my sister. This family has enough problems without incest.
(William buries his teenage self. Dad tries to dig up the body. William restrains him.)
DAD: “Why did you do this? I loved you so much.”
WILLIAM: Oh please. You’re a fairy tale monster. We won’t be humanizing you this late in the story.

Scene Six: Driveway
WILLIAM: We’ll get you moved in, enroll you in school and introduce you to my boyfriend.
VIOLET: “Are we running away?”
WILLIAM: “Yea, sorta. No. We’re just leaving.”
(Dad sits with Kid William in the Garden as Adult William drives away.)


It Gets Better?

To every event in the film there are two interpretations. He left home and now he’s back and his memory is haunting them. Or he did commit suicide when young and his homecoming is a fantasy?

Thomas Fitzgerald, Director and Screenwriter

The ultimate in queenly revenge as an obese ugly duckling becomes a sleek, sophisticated homo.

Gary Morris, Bright Lights Film Journal

This film packs a lot into 90 minutes. There are enough characters for a stage farce. My recap left out a Catholic granny with dementia, a furious aunt, a blind dog, a smirking Virgin Mary figurine, William’s brief stint as a sex worker, and the family tendency to name everyone after plants.

Adult William can read as a passive protagonist. His journey is internal. He never tells off his father. But I got the sense he doesn’t need to. He came to make peace with the rest of the family. The burial is an act of forgiving his past self, rather than repressing it. He left father behind long ago. Soon the rest will leave dad alone with his plants.

Violet’s an interesting character who would benefit from more screen time. Foul tempered but vulnerable. Masc presenting and resentful of being made a flower girl. Some critics referred to Violet as a “tomboy.” Others as trans coded. Whatever Vi’s identity, they’ll have a better chance of exploring it with William in the city than with grandad in the country.

The film has a nuanced look at William’s obesity. He suggests it provided protection from expectations to play sports and have a girlfriend. It was also something his parents couldn’t control. The film doesn’t pretend that losing the weight has magically fixed his life. There are hints that the change has left him with undiagnosed anorexia. Most groundbreaking, for me, was the brief love scene between teen William and his crush. The recent film The Whale put a celebrity in a fat suit and insulted him for two hours. The Hanging Garden allows an obese character affection, desire and dignity. This isn’t an easy film to watch. But I appreciate the hope it offers the central character.

You can watch The Hanging Garden on Tubi. You can find more of my reviews on The AvocadoLetterboxd and Serializd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.