Fingersmith Review

Noel Megahey reviews the UK DVD release of the recent BBC adaptation from the bestselling and Booker nominated author of ‘Tipping The Velvet’ – another Dickensian ripping yarn given the full BBC costume drama treatment.

With her novels Tipping The Velvet and Affinity, Sarah Waters had been gaining a sizeable if somewhat specialist audience with her Victorian lesbian erotica for the female-oriented Virago press, but the publication of her 2003 novel Fingersmith – much lighter in tone and a real page-turning thriller – brought her to the attention of a much wider audience. With the BBC TV production of Tipping The Velvet appearing on screens at the peak of the bestselling popularity of Fingersmith and a nomination for the Booker Prize – not to mention the BBC’s love of all things Victorian and literary particularly so when there are sexy elements that can be played on – it was perhaps inevitable that Fingersmith would also be adapted for the television in due course.

Set in London in 1862, Fingersmith is a real Dickensian intrigue with elements of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Great Expectations. After her mother had been hanged for murder, Susan Trinder (Sally Hawkins) is brought up by Mrs Sucksby (Imelda Staunton), who looks after orphans and unwanted babies, managing to find work for them in her little gang of thieves and pickpockets – known as fingersmiths. One of the gang, Richard Rivers (Rupert Evans) known as ‘Gentleman’, has concocted a scheme to marry an heiress to a great fortune. He arranges to have Sue employed as a maid to Maud Lilly (Elaine Cassidy), to help Gentleman elope with her and, when the time comes, leave her in a madhouse and make off with her inheritance. For this Sue is promised £3,000 – a large amount of money for a humble fingersmith. Engaged through various nefarious means as Maud’s maid, Sue nevertheless comes to feel a certain sympathy for her poor mistress – a frail, sensitive girl, rescued from the madhouse by her uncle (Charles Dance), who has seen little of the world beyond the manor she lives in. Maud’s life is a captive one, assisting her uncle to catalogue and index his vast collection of books, her delicate hands kept in a pair of kid gloves to protect the books from getting marked or damaged. As Maud suffers from nightmares, Sue sometimes sleeps in the same bed as her to keep her company. Fearing her impending marriage to Mr Rivers and ignorant of how a wife must please her husband, she gains a few lessons in love-making from Sue and a relationship develops between maid and mistress. In spite of her feelings for her mistress, Sue nonetheless follows through on her part of the plan – she must not forget who she is and where she comes from – and co-operates in her Mistress’s elopement with Mr Rivers and helps contribute to her subsequent ‘illness’. However when the time comes for Maud to be admitted to the madhouse, Sue finds out that there has been an entirely different plot being operated on behind her back, one that has left her with an identity crisis and in a particularly difficult predicament.

…and that’s only the beginning. One of the pure joys of Waters’ novel was in it the delightful, unexpected twists and turns that would occur throughout and this is replicated in the BBC TV adaptation, so to say any more about the plot would be to spoil one of the principal enjoyments of the convoluted plot and surprising revelations that occur over the three-hour adaptation. The TV series, sticking closely to the format of the book, gets off to a slow start, spending half the running time making sure that the initial set-up is clearly laid-out, showing Sue’s perspective on the events and then repeating many of the same events from Maud’s perspective all over again up to the crisis point, but showing the subtle differences in the reality of how events are playing out. But the little insights and the insidiously darker turn events take when looked beneath the surface, as well as the subsequent predicament it leaves both women in is enough to keep the viewer interested. And it’s worth hanging in for the clever twists that constantly arrive in the second half of the story.

As a TV series adaptation of Sarah Waters’ book, Fingersmith is generally successful, not least in the casting which is flawless throughout from the appropriate choices for the two principal girls down to the inspired choices of Imelda Staunton as Mrs Sucksby and Charles Dance as Mr. Lilly. Even the secondary characters, although inevitably less developed in the TV adaptation, are similarly well-drawn. It was the fine characterisation of Waters’ book that made these characters frankly improbable duplicitous motivations credible and the strong casting and performances are equal to that here. Where the TV series is lacking is in its often conventionally quaint olde-world, biscuit-tin illustration depiction of Victorian London. Waters novel is deliciously gritty in its descriptions – meticulously studied and researched by Waters for her book – of the squalor of the insane asylum, the fetid filth of the city, and the viscous swell of the Thames, tying it in beautifully with the sordid underbelly of the seedy activities of Victorian pornographers. There’s little sense of that period realism here and too much of the Victorian pantomime of the BBC’s previous adaptation of Tipping The Velvet. Much of that is down to the foreshortening of the darker elements in the second half of the story – losing much of the brutality and horror of the madhouse scenes and allowing for too much moonlight and shadow on cobblestones in the Victorian London scenes. The lesbian undercurrent is also much less explicit here than in Waters’ earlier work (and the rather silly music-hall romp of the previous BBC adaptation), but evident nonetheless in the suggestive title, the brief though lingering love scenes between the two girls, and the whole finding out that you are not who you thought you were theme that is a very much a subtle metaphor for a gay person coming to an awareness of their sexuality. Leaving aside these minor quibbles with the pacing and the conventionality of BBC period costume drama however, this is a mostly fine adaptation, well-cast and well-played with plenty of suspense elements and twists.

DVDThe full three-hour series is released on DVD by Freemantle on a single DVD-9 disc. The DVD is not region coded. The TV version of the series was split across three one-hour episodes, but on DVD it is divided into two one and a half hour parts. There doesn’t seem to be any changes in the sequencing or pacing other than in the moving of the end-titles.

VideoThe image quality is exceptionally good, quite equal to the TV broadcast quality. The picture is transferred in anamorphic widescreen at the 16:9 ratio. The image is a little on the soft side, but it’s a look and feel that is entirely appropriate for the low warm sepia-toned candlelit and fire-lit interiors and the cold steely-blue night-time scenes. The picture nevertheless shows a good level of detail, with scarcely any grain, solid blacks and a clear stable transfer, with no sign of digital artefacts or edge-enhancement.

AudioThe Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is more than adequate. The soundtrack has a nice warm reverberation, remaining clear with no background noise, picking up the little atmospheric sound-effects well.

SubtitlesThere are no hard of hearing subtitles included on the DVD, which is an unfortunate omission. There’s really no excuse for these not being included on every DVD now.

ExtrasThe DVD features a brief, but well-made and detailed Behind The Scenes, speaking to Sally Head (also responsible for Tipping The Velvet) and Sarah Waters as well other as key members of the cast and crew. Text Character Profiles and Episode Synopses are hardly necessary or even useful. An extensive Photo Gallery can be shown as a slideshow or navigated.

OverallWhile it has less of the racy innuendo and explicitness of Tipping The Velvet, Fingersmith is still not exactly the conventional Victorian romantic bodice-ripper you might expect. In some respects it’s certainly conventional, with Dickensian characters and plot developments and particularly in the BBC’s glossy treatment of TV period costume drama, but Waters’ uncommon twist of having the female protagonist care less about the handsome rogue of a male suitor than her maid makes Fingersmith refreshingly different and, with a constantly evolving plot full of revelations and shocks, the series retains many of the elements that made the novel so compelling. The DVD quality of the UK Region 2 release is particularly good, presenting the whole three-hour adaptation well, with a slight over-softness the only issue on an otherwise exceptional transfer.


Updated: Apr 18, 2005

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