Sapphic Cinema: “Tipping The Velvet”


Friends! Thank you so much for your patience (or impatience) while I took a brief break from Sapphic Cinema. I needed the time to prepare myself for the film (because in spite of the fact that it’s really a miniseries, it’s much more film than television) that has the most pomp, circumstance, and splendor of our entire canon: I could only be referring to Tipping The Velvet.

No task could be more fruitless than addressing whether or not Tipping The Velvet is “good.” Is the sky “good?” Is the ocean “well-acted?” These things are vast beyond our comprehension, and all we can do is accept both their sunshine and their tempests with meek acquiescence.


Whatever else one may say about it, there’s no denying that Tipping The Velvet is one of few queer movies you can always find on YouTube, however poor or sad or lonely you are. It’s the 24-hour diner of lesbian film. And in that spirit, that is how I shall present the captions, complete with Spanish subtitles.

Based on the Sarah Waters’ 10,000 page novel of the same name, TtV tells the story of Nan Astley, oyster shucker, male impersonator, prostitute, socialist, slut.


Nan is played by Rachael Stirling, and I have seen this movie so many times I honestly can’t tell if her performance is like a brilliant flower (or oyster) that opens up in front of you or if she plays Nan like a brain-damaged Labrador. I just don’t know anymore. Certainly in this age of Ruby Rose, it is difficult not to dreamcast a Nan who would be brasher, sharper, handsomer. But we can’t edit the Bible, and we can’t fuck with our own foundational texts.  The first thing you learn about Nan is that she comes from oyster people, in case you were worried that the vaginal imagery would take too long to establish itself.


Yet, much as she loves oysters—their smell, their texture, the lengths one must go to access them—Nan, like many girls before their Big Gay Revelation, is unfulfilled. She has a decent job, a loving family, and a boyfriend she won’t let get past second base. (That boyfriend, by the way, is Benedict Cumberbatch, who acquits himself admirably in playing the lad as exactly the sort of pitiful high school boyfriend we all had at one point.)


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