London, the 1860s. Sue Trinder (Sally Hawkins) is a “fingersmith”, an orphaned pickpocket, one of several brought up by Mrs Sucksby (Imelda Staunton). One day, Richard Rivers (Rupert Evans), known as “Gentleman”, visits with a proposal. He intends to marry a young heiress, Maud Lilly (Elaine Cassidy) and therefore gain access to her fortune, held in trust until her wedding. However, he needs to get close to her, as she is under the watchful eye of her uncle (Charles Dance) at their house in Buckinghamshire, so Sue will gain employment as Maud's maid and help her to fall in love with him. Once they are married, Gentleman will have Maud committed to an asylum and take the money for himself, and Sue will have a cut of it. Sue agrees to go along with this, but the scam is not as straightforward as she first believes...
Sarah Waters was born in Wales but first lived in London while doing a PhD at Queen Mary College. She has lived in the city ever since and it's clear that it captured her imagination as it has frequently been the setting for her fiction. Her PhD thesis was on lesbian and gay historical fiction from the 1870s to the present, and this has informed the subject matter of her work. For inspiration, she has drawn on the works of major Victorian novelists, particularly Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Brontës and the mid-Century “novels of sensation” with their elaborate and intricate plots. She does take advantage of the licence to include subject matter which the Victorians were not able to, such as the presence of gay and particularly lesbian characters. As such, she crosses a few publishing boundaries: a literary novelist who wins and is nominated for prizes (three nominations for the Man Booker and three for the Orange/Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction) whose works sell to a wider audience, a novelist who is published by a women's press (Virago) and who deals overtly with gay themes whose readers include men as well as women and straight readers as well as gay ones. All her novels have historical settings, with the first three set mostly in Victorian London. Needless to say, television adaptations soon followed. The first four of her six novels to date - Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999), Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006) – have been adapted for British television. No doubt adaptations of The Little Stranger (2009) and The Paying Guests (2014) will follow in due course. Fingersmith has since become Waters's first novel to become a cinema film, in the shape of The Handmaiden, directed by Park Chan-wook and with its setting updated to 1930s Korea. This opens in the UK on 14 April. At the time of writing this review I have yet to see it.
Waters's third novel made the shortlists for the Man Booker shortlist and the then Orange Prize, and won the Crime Writers' Association Ellis Peters Historical Dagger for the best historical crime novel of the year. The novel is narrated in first person by both Sue and Maud, in separate sections, so enabling Waters's plot twist halfway through, where we find out what has really been going on, unknown to the narrator whose words we've been reading so far. (I'm avoiding spoilers here.) Peter Ransley's script reorders the storylines so that we begin with both Maud and Sue in childhood, and not infrequently cutting between the two characters before they actually meet. Ransley also reduces the use of voiceover, restricting it to key moments such as the point where one character's voiceover takes us back several years to explain the events so far. Waters's prose is rich and luxuriant, but in a visual medium much of that work is done by the director (Aisling Walsh) and her production and costume designers, and Ransley does streamline certain parts of the story, even to fit this fairly lengthy novel into three hours of screen time.
Despite all the plot reversals, Fingersmith is at heart a love story, and it's to the serial's benefit that the chemistry between its two leads is obvious. Sally Hawkins had had a small role in the Andrew Davies-scripted, Geoffrey Sax-directed 2002 BBC adaptation of Tipping the Velvet, but her breakthrough role in Happy-Go-Lucky was three years in the future. Elaine Cassidy, three years younger than Hawkins, had played the title role in Felicia's Journey four years earlier. Rupert Evans, nicely duplicitous, had had a significant role in Hellboy, the year before. There's a fine supporting cast behind them. Fingersmith is a solid, involving, good-looking adaptation of the kind the BBC has done many times before and since, and it'll keep your attention through the story's twists and turns to the end.
Fingersmith, broadcast in three parts starting on 27 March 2005 (Easter Sunday), was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Drama Serial but was beaten by the BBC's adaptation of Bleak House.
Issued to tie in with the release of The Handmaiden, Network's all-regions release is identical in content to Fremantle's earlier DVD from 2005. The BBC's broadcast was in three one-hour episodes, but the DVD release splits the serial into two parts, ninety minutes each. (There isn't a “select episode” option on the menu: to go to Episode Two, you have to go to “select a scene” and page forward.) The disc is dual-layered and in PAL format.
The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced. In 2005, high-definition television was on the way, but the BBC's HD channel (simulcasting programmes with the SD channel) didn't launch until the following year. Programmes were still being made in SD. I haven't been able to confirm if Fingersmith was made in HD, but it was only broadcast in SD, and that's what you have on this disc. The transfer looks fine, faithful to Simon Kossoff's camerawork, colourful with strong blacks.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0, which plays on this disc out of the left and right speakers (as far as I could tell with no differences between the two), with the centre and surrounds silent. Unfortunately there are no subtitles for the hard of hearing.
The main extra is a making-of featurette (11:19). We see the shooting of a street scene and Sarah Waters, Sally Hawkins, Imelda Staunton and producer Georgina Lowe are interviewed, with Peter Ransley and Waters discussing the differences between the novel and the adapted version. There is also a stills gallery. The remaining extras are fairly redundant: text screens with profiles of the five main characters and synopses of the two episodes.