DVD Review: Fingersmith

“The over-exposure of women to literature breeds unnatural fancies”

I struggled a little bit to find another theatrical-friendly lesbian-themed thing to watch so I returned to Sarah Waters and the 2005 adaptation of Fingersmith, which as it starred Sally Hawkins was no great hardship at all. Set in Victorian England as was Tipping the Velvet, this story follows the lives of Sue and Maud, two very different women whose lives are irrevocably changed when a trio of fingersmiths, or pickpockets, conspire to rob an heiress of her fortune. But it turns out the plans are even more devious than first assumed as they culminate in the most unexpected of fashions and in a deftly clever move, we revisit all we have just seen from another perspective, casting uncertainty of the surety of what we know which plays excellently in the subsequent exploration of the disturbing reality of Victorian mental asylums.

Sally Hawkins is predictably excellent as Sue, one of the pickpockets who hoodwinks her way into the slightly disturbed Maud’s, the pale Elaine Cassidy, household as a housemaid who acts as a chaperone to allow a second trickster, Mr Rivers played by a bewhiskered Rupert Evans, to pose as a gentleman and seduce Maud into marriage just before she inherits a large fortune. Maud has been stifled by life in her extremely strict uncle’s house as a contributor to his immense collection of pornography and relishes the contact of Sue’s seemingly kindred spirit, so much so that an illicit lesbian affair springs up between the pair. But even as Sue is deceiving her, it emerges that Maud is not quite as delicate as she may seem and so intrigue builds on intrigue as Peter Ransley’s screenplay condenses a wonderfully complex novel into a more streamlined narrative, though still full of equally multifaceted characters. 

So alongside Sue and Maud’s double-dealing, Imelda Staunton’s Mrs Sucksby balances her Fagin-like leadership with a sacrificial kindness and Rupert Evans’ villainous gent is a genuinely conflicted conman who no longer really knows who he is. And combined with Waters’ delving into the seedy underbelly of Victorian society which rarely so vividly portrayed, it all makes for a highly satisfying watch. It also becomes highly moving in its emotive conclusion, Staunton and Hawkins in particular doing some heart-rending work under Aisling Walsh’s astute direction. The supporting cast has its faces, Charles Dance, Richard Durden, Laura Dos Santos…and most memorably Sophie Stanton makes a wonderfully vicious asylum nurse, Michelle Dockery pops up a crazy patient and David Troughton is a clever bit of counter-intuitive casting as the father-figure of the pickpocketing household. 

Though less overtly gay than Tipping the Velvet, I think Fingersmith actually emerges as a slightly stronger piece of work as a more wide-ranging story, embracing the seediness of all Victorian society but crucially retaining an intimacy in the story-telling that is better suited to the televisual medium. 

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