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Retro-mad film review: Fingersmith (UK, BBC, 2005)

There is a line from Rupert Evans’ villainous character, Mr. Rivers, that sums up my whole experience of this BBC movie: “I cannot find the words”.

I know that’s being melodramatic, but it is true. I watched this yesterday, after months of ignoring it because I’d heard it was a) a Victorian drama with b) lesbians so I thought that c) it would end badly. Plus I’d read enough Victorian, semi/pseudo/quasi-Victorian books to know that anything with two women in it would not be good.

I digress. Lesbians in a Victorian London – I had low expectations about “Fingersmith”, and prepared myself to be disappointed, and be horrified at the fates of a pair of star-crossed lovers.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when this TV movie by the BBC, adapted from British lesbian author Sarah Waters’ novel of the same name, turns out to be good, nay, better than I expected. I was so taken by it that I almost didn’t want to review it, reduce it to an academic and/or technical dissertation. It felt like I’d discovered some treasure long buried in this movie and I wanted to hoard it for a little while longer, savor it, as it were. Mind you, I’d watched “It’s in the Water”, “Out at the Wedding” and “Desert Hearts” before this, so finding this little gem was like a breath of fresh air. Where the movies I’d mentioned previously were bad (on many levels) – this movie boasts of a stellar cast, led by Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins,Academy Award nominee Imelda Staunton and Charles Dance, so that also was kind of like icing on the cinematic experience as well. ^^
This is a three-part BBC TV movie series, directed by Aisling Walsh from a screenplay by Peter Ransley based on the book by Sarah Waters. So, here goes the review…

The story (Warning – spoilers!):

fingersmith1The movie opens on Victorian London in the 1800s (the London of Charles Dickens times), and begins with Susan “Sue” Trinder (Sally Hawkins). Sue has grown up an orphan and has been raised in the squalid, slums of London, in Lan Street, looked after by the crime ring leader, Mrs. Sucksby (Imelda Staunton). Sue is an illiterate, streetwise,  fingersmith, a kind of female version of Dicken’s Artful Dodger to Mrs. Sucksby’s Fagin. Life is hard, but Sue is comfortable and unambitious.

Enter Richard “Gentleman” Rivers (Rupert Evans), a young middle-class penniless gambler and swindler who has discovered that in the middle of countryside, in a place called Briar Court, a young woman is set to inherit some £40,000 from her long-dead mother, but only if she gets married. The young woman, Maud Lilly (Elaine Cassidy) has been plucked out of an orphanage by uncle, Mr. Lilly (Charles Dance), when she was a girl, after her mother died, and he has brought her up as his secretary and has effectively kept her isolated and hence perpetually single so she could not get her inheritance. Gentleman’s plan is simple: woo the naive girl, marry her, throw her in a mental asylum, and get the £40,000 for himself. For the plan to work, he needs an accomplice, an ally who would act as Maud’s maid, somebody who could convince Maud to elope with Gentleman. This is were Sue comes in – Sue will, for an agreed £3,000, be Maud’s maid. Her agreement to the plan sets in motion the events that follow.

Sue has initial apprehensions about pulling off being a maid – she is, afterall, only a fingersmith, a thief, but Gentleman trains her to become one. But she meets Maud and she realizes that it is going to be easier than she thinks: Maud looks properly naive, innocent, sweet, sheltered, that deceiving her would be easy.

fingersmith3Everything is supposed to go well – but Sue does not count on the unexpected: she actually likes the young woman, and as Maud seems charmed by her as well, they strike a friendship with each other. Sue becomes not only a maid, but companion and confidante. From nightmares, to toothaches, to learning how to dance, Sue goes through everything with her. Sue forgets that she is about to betray this girl that she has come to like, until Gentleman comes back to reap  what Sue has sown. This complicates matters for her and provides an interesting tension in the story. Sue admits that she hadn’t realized until Gentleman arrived, how happy she was, and how much she hated Gentleman.  As Gentleman woos Maud on the pretext of teaching her painting, Sue is wracked with guilt and doubts. As the impending marriage looms, the intensity and tension between Maud and Sue increase, culminating in a scene where Sue starts out teaching Maud how to kiss Gentleman, which ends up being a full-on love scene. It starts out funny, even amusing, but as the intimacy deepens, there is a tenderness and sweetness. There is nothing exploitative or sexy about the scene, but it is a very gentle scene and reveals much about how the two feel about each other. Interestingly, Maud responds to her as well. And thus is an already complicated situation made even more complicated, the balance of power, the relationship between the two has shifted, and makes what follows after even more unexpected. Sue already knows that she is in love with Maud. But the shame and embarrassment of failure, of being laughed at for falling in love with another girl, of going back to Lan Street empty-handed, pushes her to go through with the plan. She finds the heart to assist Gentleman and Maud in eloping.

The beginning of the second part shows Sue assisting Maud to escape Briar Court in time for her wedding with Gentleman. Before Gentleman’s wedding night with Maud, Maud and Sue have an intimate moment again. Sue is on the brink of breaking down. Gentleman arranges for pseudo-psychiatrists to evaluate Maud’s mental state and they interview Maud and Sue separately for this. Sue breaks down in the middle of the interview, revealing how much she cares for Maud and how horrible she feels at betraying her.

Gentleman and Sue bring Maud to the mental hospital, and as the carriage door opens, a second passes, and then it is Sue that is pulled out by the doctors and nurses, not Maud. When Maud speaks in Sue’s accent, it is revealed that she is in on the plan as well and had planned to betray her and put her in the asylum. It is this part that completely took me by surprise and had me hooked. I thought it was brilliant. ^^

During this part, Maud reveals her side of the story: Gentleman had come to Briar Court proposing a plan to Maud. Gentleman knew that Maud had a fortune that she can only inherit if she marries and he proposes they elope so that she can get her inheritance, in exchange for a portion of her wealth. In order to pull it off, they must get rid of her existing maid and replace her with a more compliant one: Sue. Maud is to become Sue, and she will be thrown in the asylum, so that Maud can escape to London. Maud is initially reluctant, but the thought of being stuck in Briar Court, with her stern, pseudo-academic uncle, reading pornographic books to him and his friends, forever, won over her need to stay, and she agrees to his plan. Maud is revealed to be manipulative, cold and calculating, which makes her an actually more effective villain than Sue. I find Elaine Cassidy perfectly cast as Maud Lilly – she has that perfectly innocent, naive, deer-in-the-headlights look, which makes her betrayal of Sue all the more compelling. While Sally Hawkins has gotten more critical praise for portraying Sue – and well she should, since Hawkins reveals an impressive acting range all in the space of a heartbeat, conveying a range of emotions from cockiness, to goofiness, to guilt, to doubt, and love. This is made more so as her feelings for Maud deepen and I found her acting to be quite excellent. But anyone who is familiar with Victorian society would know that the women of the middle and upper-classes are trained to be reserved, to be inscrutable . And hence, Maud’s portrayal of a reserved, inscrutable young Victorian lady who reveals herself to be cunning and scarily manipulative, is brilliant. Cassidy’s Maud is thus an effectively complex character, the more fascinating one of the two, since she is the one who pulls of a deception more.

fingersmith2But as with Sue, she does not count on liking Sue as well. Sue’s charm, the development of their relationship, gives her doubts about their plans. Sue’s presence in her life awakens something in Sue, and gives meaning even to the books she reads for her uncle. In the pivotal love scene, Maud narrates, “She has touched the life of me, the quick of me” (Ah! I’ve always loved how the British use words! that line always kills me) But her determination to leave Briar Court and be free of her uncle,wins over her love for Sue. And so, wracked with guilt, she betrays Sue.

When she gets to London, Gentleman brings her to Lan Street and it is revealed there, by Mrs. Sucksby, that their little scheme is part of an even bigger scheme, a plan that Mrs. Sucksby has been planning since Maud and Sue were children. Apparently Maud isn’t really the daughter of her uncle’s sister. Sue is the real daughter and her dying mother had not wanted her to be put in the care of her uncle. So, Mrs. Sucksby gives away Maud, a young orphan Mrs. Sucksby comes across and she takes in the young Sue. The mother makes a will where Maud and Sue both inherit money the minute they both turn 21, and Maud realizes not only that she is way in over her head, but the full extent of her betrayal of the woman she loves.

The third part shows Sue’s life in the asylum, how she escapes. It is also revealed that Mrs. Sucksby is Maud’s mother. The third part sustains the tension, culminating in the confrontation scene where Mrs. Sucksby, Maud, Sue and Gentleman confront each other. A tussle ensues, during which Gentleman is stabbed and killed. Maud attempts to confess, but Mrs. Sucksby takes the blame and is hanged. Maud and Sue part and that would have been the end of it, except Sue gets hold of her real mother’s will and finds out who she and Maud really are. Sue looks for Maud, finds her and find a way to forgive each other.

Whew!

What can I say? I love, love this film. I loved the story, I loved the plot, I loved the characters, I loved the costumes, I loved this film. ^^

The first part is a a delight to watch, a kind of guilty pleasure. It starts out slow, languid, demanding you to enjoy it, to savor everything. The  background, the characterization is laid out perfectly. The dramatic, sexual and romantic tension between Maud and Sue are so engaging you find yourself rooting for these two. It establishes the two main characters as emphatic and as victims, and what happens next, in the second part, is unexpected and thus compelling.

By the time I was watching the second part, when Maud’s thoughts are revealed,and she shows herself to be a clever, scheming young lady, I was fascinated! Why did I not see that coming? I think to myself.  And when Mrs. Sucksby reveals that she has always been a small part of Mrs. Sucksby’s bigger scheme, I thought it was positively diabolical. It was so wicked, I must admit I liked it. Imelda Staunton’s Mrs. Sucksby is f*cking diabolical. To have planned such an elaborate scheme that extends for 20 years- that’s just frigging remarkable.  And to be able to make her own daughter scheme with her unwittingly, that is even more fascinating – Maud is thus her mother’s daughter after all, even though she has grown up in a different environment.

I love how complex and complicated the two main characters, Maud and Sue,  are, how three-dimensional they are, how intense  they are. I love that this being the Victorian era, you have to rely mostly on their actions, their facial expressions, because even their voice overs don’t necessarily speak the truth.

I find myself invested in the two main characters. I’ve never had that feeling in a long time. I wanted to know what was going to be happen next. I was excited to know. It was a refreshing film. It is a testament to the writing, the acting,and most especially 2 relatively unknown actresses who turn out to be really good (Sally Hawkins moves on to win awards, including the Golden Globes for a movie in 2009).

I like the symmetry of this film as well. It begins with a hanging, it ends with a hanging, Sue’s mother was in the madhouse, and she is sent to the madhouse as well. I love the climax, in the third part – when Maud and Sue finally confront each other. It’s like some fucking brilliant lover’s quarrel. ^^ But that climax – is paradoxically anti-climactic as well. All that build-up and a brief tussle and Gentleman is dead.^^

This is excellent storytelling (I bet the book is even better), and I loved every minute of it.

I did, however, find the voice overs a put-off. I realize now why some critics don’t like them – they are a bit condescending and operate on the assumption that the viewers are idiots who need a step-by-step, point-by-point account of what is going on, when the 2 leads are talented enough to carry the movie without either the voice overs or the shrieking music: they succeed in creating a a sustained romance, chemistry that is deeply heartfelt.

But the voice over succeeds in one thing: establishing the difference between Maud and Sue’s characters. Maud is literate and more educated and therefore more articulate about how she felt. But she is also very good at justifying her actions. Sue reveals herself not to be as streetwise as she thought herself to be, and all the more innocent.

The other thing is the music. That annoying tinkling piano and the shrieking violin – I can’t take them seriously since reading Adrian Mole’s Cappucino Years (long story – suffice it to say that apparently this kind of music is typical of BBC productions). They are just so effing unnecessary.

Anyway, other than that, this is a proper story, with a proper ending, with the proper comeuppance for the proper villains – none of that villains-are-human- too crap from other films.

The reviewer at afterellen.com noted that this film would leave the viewer cynical about the world…I say, on the contrary. It actually restores your faith in humanity and your natural sense of order and justice: the evil ones get punished, the good ones end up together in the end.

It is an old-fashioned story with post-modern sensibility. One would find one’s life a bit enriched by the insight into humanity that this film provides. ^^

the voice overs are a put-off but other than that
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