The film also largely ignores the homophobia which played a major part in Kitty’s rejection of Nan — an omission that blunts the story’s realism and makes it seem more like a gaudy melodrama. It seems that the process of adapting the novel to the small screen meant the elimination of many of the more serious elements of the story — including the ending, which differs from the novel in a surprising but not un-satisfying way.
Keeley Hawes delivers a fine performance as Kitty Butler, and her combination of femininity and magnetic charm is the true embodiment of the fantasy of Kitty Butler that Nan is drawn to.
Early in the miniseries when Kitty offers a red rose to a blushing Nan Astley at the end of her stage set, Hawes is the perfect combination of Marlene Dietrich glamour (reminding us that a woman in a well-cut tuxedo is irresistible) and subtle lesbian lust.
While Rachael Stirling (who is also, by the way, the daughter of Diana Rigg, a.k.a. Emma Peel) does an admirable job playing Nan, she unfortunately falls short when it comes to playing up Nan’s butchness.
The Nan Astley of the novel is tall, lanky, and most definitely passes as a man. In the book, when she is first dressed up as a boy to join Kitty on stage, Walter Bliss declares that she looks too much like a boy, and has her suit tailored to mimic a woman’s hips and bust so that the audience has no chance to mistake her for a man.
Rachael Stirling, however, is undeniably feminine, and although she makes an effort to walk like a man, she doesn’t ever quite succeed. Although her husky voice is perfectly suited for this role, she is handicapped by costuming and make-up (ever-present eyeliner and lipstick) that constantly mark her as a pretty woman. This effectively mutes Nan’s masculinity, and reminds us once again that butch women are very rarely seen on television or in films.
The fact that the BBC version was both written and directed by men makes me wonder if that is the reason that Nan remains fairly femme, as female masculinity in a lesbian context is often threatening to men. The screenwriter, Andrew Davies, is well-known for his adaptations of Bridget Jones’s Diary and the acclaimed BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, and his adaptation of Tipping the Velvet remains true to the general story in the novel.
But director Geoffrey Sax, who has mostly directed television movies in the U.K., is too heavy-handed in his usage of visual symbolism to summarize Nan’s emotional state. In one instance, just before Nan and Kitty first kiss, a flame leaps up from the bottom of the screen to remind us of — one assumes — their fiery passion.
Unfortunately, Sax’s direction fails to turn up the heat in the love scenes, which mostly resemble soft-core straight porn’s version of lesbian love-making.
Although some of the scenes are sweet and romantic, complete with golden lighting and soft music, they lack the raw hunger that leapt from the pages of Sarah Waters’s novel. In Nan’s first sexual experience with Diana, the circus music inexplicably returns, making an extremely erotic encounter more of a laughable romp. And Nan and Flo’s relationship is painted as a very tender and innocent one, rather than the more experienced and savvy one of the novel.
Finally, many of these love scenes are marred by an almost unforgivable sin: the tongue-on-teeth kiss patented by the porn industry. It’s clear that the director didn’t know anything about how lesbians make love, much less how they have sex. But making a filmed version of any novel automatically sets the finished product up for criticism, because it is virtually impossible to match every reader’s individual expectations.
If you have not read Tipping the Velvet, the BBC version will be very entertaining and romantic. The sets and costumes are fantastic, and Keeley Hawes alone is worth watching. The BBC is also to be applauded for making a miniseries out of Tipping the Velvet, which is an unapologetically lesbian novel. For those who have read the novel, it’s important to watch the BBC version with the knowledge that it would be extremely difficult to recreate the vivid world that Sarah Waters created.
And if you’re anything like me, watching the miniseries will prompt you to re-read the book, which is absolutely, unforgettably delicious.