When the BBC’s first adaptation of a Sarah Waters book, Tipping the Velvet, premiered in 2002, it was met with mixed reactions and a fair amount of controversy. It seemed extraordinary that the prudish, proper BBC–the main television broadcaster in Britain–would even show such a lesbian drama, but many lesbian viewers felt they edited out too much of the lesbian content.
Thankfully, three years later, the reaction to the BBC’s broadcast of the adaptation of another Sarah Waters novel, Fingersmith, has been much less scandalous, either because British society now has a more relaxed attitude towards sex on television (also demonstrated in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Casanova, about the most famous male nymphomaniac), or, more optimistically, because there has been a gradual increase in the acceptance of homosexuality in the last few years–at least within the framework of nineteenth-century Britain and tight corsets.
Given the disappointment many lesbians felt with the adaptation of Tipping the Velvet, I tuned into the first installment of the three-part Fingersmith on Sunday, March 27th, with a mixture of hope and trepidation. My fears diminished soon after the movie opened, however, and scenes of a poverty-stricken, disease-ridden Victorian London filled the screen, introducing the lavish set and costume design that would serve as the backdrop to the story.
Like Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith is a story of lesbian love, deceit and betrayal set in Victorian England (see our Fingersmith book review for a more thorough plot description). The adaptation begins by highlighting the very different upbringings of two young women: Sue (Sally Hawkins) the teenage orphan who is trained as a fingersmith (slang for a petty thief, or pick-pocket) by the crime boss who takes her in; and Maud (Elaine Cassidy), the privileged but repressed member of high society set to inherit a small fortune from her father.
Sue’s humorous, free manner contrasts sharply with Maud’s constricted seriousness. Elaine Cassidy seems comfortable in the role, displaying repressed emotion through a stony countenance, loosening only when laughing at Sue’s jokes, or dancing with her. The actress’s greatest achievement early on in the movie is to hint at the better scenes to come, when Maud will finally be able to begin to let go of her seemingly emotionless character.
In many reviews, Sally Hawkins has been highlighted as the actress who shines, and it’s not hard to see why. Her expressive face successfully communicates a range of emotions throughout the whole episode (most probably throughout the whole series.) She brings subtle comedy to the scene where Sue, an illiterate Londoner, is getting exasperated at learning how to dress a lady (using a chair as a prop), or when gazing upon the “mile after bleeding mile” of countryside. Even in the short snippets where Sue practices her curtsey, we are forced to smile.
Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Sucksby, the woman who takes in Sue after she’s orphaned and trains her in the art of deception, and Rupert Evans as the Gentleman (aka Mr. Rivers), round out the cast of characters at the heart of this drama.
Gentleman brings Sue and Maud together as part of an elaborate scheme to swindle Maud of her inheritance by convincing Maud to marry him. Gentleman is more of a caricature than an actual character, but Evans plays his role to the hilt: lecherous, innuendo-filled remarks slide off his tongue as though commonplace, and his physical frustration at Sue’s lack of progress with Maud masterfully conveys the patriarchal repression that permeates Victorian-era society.
Evans and Hawkins play off each other well as initial partners-in-crime. Sue often looks as though she is on the verge of rolling her eyes when hearing Gentleman’s slimy comments to Maud, adding to both the tension and the comic relief.
Compared with Tipping the Velvet, many viewers will find this drama slower-moving and more serious, but also perhaps more faithful to its source. The slower pace allows viewers to feast on the setting, costumes and acting, and also contributes wonderfully to the mounting tension between Sue and Maud that begins when Sue suggestively rubs Maud’s tooth with a thimble, and culminates in a bedroom scene which first seems to veer towards the comic (with Sue bewildered at Maud’s naïve questions), then becomes sweet and romantic.
Until the morning after, where anguish at the marriage of Maud to Gentleman looms.
The second episode starts off considerably slower than the first, as it attempts to keep the conspiracy a secret from unsuspecting viewers. But soon, Sue and Gentleman’s plan is discovered by Maud, who feels betrayed. Elaine Cassidy demonstrates the true depth of Maud’s character beneath her brittle exterior, as Maud shows the full extent of her love for Sue despite the betrayal. Sally Hawkins, in turn, demonstrates her excellent ability, particularly in a scene in which Sue is imploring the doctors to look after Maud.
Rupert Evans continues to be one-dimensional, and Imelda Staunton continues to seem more humorous than sinister. The scenes in the lunatic asylum were also incredibly short, once again relying on the viewer having read the book, or at least being content to be confused.
The third and final installment is where the adaptation truly shines. Maud, disgusted and suspicious of the Lant Street inhabitants, learns the true extent of the scheme she is entangled in, while Sue is still imprisoned in the asylum. Maud, imprisoned in her own way, attempts to escape, while Sue’s illiteracy is mistaken for further evidence of her “madness.”
Eventually, Sue escapes in a manner that is true to the novel, and is just as exciting and suspenseful as Sarah Waters’s original creation. But it isn’t explained how Sue and the young boy who helped her escape suddenly arrive in London after stealing some clothes, depending again on the viewer’s ability to fill in the gaps. Mrs. Sucksby, who initially came across comically, is not so funny anymore as she reveals the final twist in the story, to which Cassidy’s Maud responds superbly.
When Sue eventually returns to Lant Street, there is a dramatic scene full of revelation and confusion, cumulating in the stabbing of Gentleman, another turn of events that might have been bewildering to those who have not read the book. After this, time leaps forward, and we learn through Sue’s narration what has befallen each of the characters.
Although it would be lengthy and time-consuming to dramatize all the events that unfolded, the viewer cannot but feel a little cheated by learning the characters’ fates via voice-over after such a dramatic and visual build-up. Fortunately, a wonderful, touching conclusion rewards the viewer’s perseverance.
Some reviewers have stated that this series is likely to leave the viewer feeling depressed and cynical about human nature, but I found it inspiring. Although it is rife with deception and betrayal, it also bristles with energy, and, ultimately, love–which in the end, does conquer all.