Whitney Hamilton and Virginia Newcomb in Union (Photo: Indican Pictures)

★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Whitney Hamilton
STARS Whitney Hamilton, Virginia Newcomb

It’s been reported that over 400 women disguised themselves as men in order to fight in the Civil War. This historical tidbit is juicy enough on its own to power a motion picture, but Union takes it even further. It not only focuses on one such woman but also expands the narrative to include gender identity, LGBT rights, child displacement, and Native American mysticism.

Clearly, writer-director-producer-actress-editor Whitney Hamilton was nothing if not ambitious on this project — perhaps too ambitious. But the overall story remains compelling even if some individual scenes lag.

Hamilton stars as Henry Kieler — or, rather, the sister of Henry Kieler, a Confederate soldier who was killed in battle and now finds his identity taken over by his sibling. But this isn’t simply a matter of a swap of clothes and a dash of fake stubble; instead, as a Native American elder (Vinston E. Rickman) explains, there now resides the male and the female inside “Henry.” If there was ever a previous movie that placed a transsexual squarely in the middle of the War Between the States, I certainly missed it.

Henry ends up seeking out and marrying Virginia Klaising (Virginia Newcomb), a brief but important acquaintance of the deceased brother. They’re happy together, but their love is routinely disrupted by Union soldiers perpetually hunting for the wanted Henry.

Union completely avoids the politics of the day (there’s nary a mention that its heroines are on the side of the slave owners), not only to focus on the love story but also to establish a relationship with contemporary issues involving LGBT acceptance. It’s an interesting slant, even if the movie’s generous length (135 minutes) siphons out some of the potency. There’s at least one subplot too many, and the final stretch of the movie could easily have been excised — it’s there to bring a flashback-driven story strand full circle, but it would have been acceptable for this particular circle to remain broken.

As is often the case in low-budget endeavors, the acting runs the gamut from earnest to awkward, with Newcomb faring best among all the performers. Stellar throughout, though, is the work of cinematographer William Schweikert, whether he’s capturing the majestic outdoors in all its colorful splendor or the cramped indoors in all its darkened hues. It’s also interesting to note that the end credits list just over 100 actors. At a time when crowd scenes and battle sequences rely heavily on CGI filling in the masses, it’s nice to see a movie that puts the people first.

(Union is available on demand on Amazon Prime, VUDU, FandangoNOW, and other streaming services.)

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