fingersmith

2005

Directed: Aisling Walsh
Written: Peter Ransley

Sarah Waters is having a fabulous run when it comes to having her books adapted for the screen. First came the lavish production of Tipping the Velvet which exactly captured the spirit of the book, even if the filmmakers chose to cut a few corners with some characters and changed the ending. Now we have Fingersmith, the second BBC production of a Sarah Waters novel. While I'm not quite as willing to wax rhapsodic about this production as I was about Tipping the Velvet, it was a solid, engaging story with few things worth griping about.

As with all films that involve intrigue of some kind, to outline too much of the plot is to do both the film and the audience a disservice. In broad terms, Fingersmith follows the story of Sue Trinder (Sally Hawkins) and Maud Lilly (Elaine Cassidy), two young women whose pasts are intertwined in ways they could not possibly imagine and who are caught up in a scheme twenty years in the making. At the behest of a con man named "Gentleman" (Rupert Evans), and with the encouragement of her foster-mother Mrs Sucksby (Imelda Staunton), Sue agrees to help in a plan to rob Maud; a young, wealthy girl who lives at the country estate of Briar.

According to Gentleman, Maud Lilly, who lives alone with her eccentric uncle, is due to come into her inheritance of forty thousand pounds when she marries. However, Mr Lilly keeps her so locked up and isolated as to negate the possibility of that ever happening. Gentleman proposes to pose as Mr Richard Rivers, a suitor for Maud and an employee of her uncle, while Sue poses as Maud's maid. Her role in the con is to help convince the naive, impressionable Maud that she is in love and ought to run away and marry Rivers. After that has happened, Rivers will have Maud locked up in an asylum and take her cash for himself. Sue's share in the booty will be three thousand pounds.

Of course, if the scheme went exactly as planned there would be no story. Things start to go desperately awry when Sue and Maud begin to develop feelings for one another. The unravelling of the con and the unveiling of the characters' different motivations forms the bulk of the plot.

Fingersmith must have been an extremely difficult tale to adapt, considering the backpedalling, twists and turns the plot takes in the novel. The first episode of the mini-series takes its time to unveil the growing feelings between the two girls and concentrates solely on telling the first third of the novel in exquisite detail. Unfortunately this left the other two-thirds of the book -- the part of the novel that contains most of the action, plot twists and revelations -- to be told in just one episode. The langorous pace of episode one makes the second episode feel rushed and out of synch with the first.

I'm not certain that anyone watching without the benefit of having read the novel would feel the same, but I was also disappointed at the lack of development of the minor characters. I think this is where the Tipping the Velvet adaptation shone, because even the smallest of the characters introduced were all three dimensional. The inhabitants of Lant Street (Mrs Sucksby's house) were not at all colourful, nor did we really get to see much of the sanctimonious inner-workings of the inhabitants of Briar, or the devilish inmates at the madhouse.

I understand that the story concentrates on the main characters by necessity, but with so little attempt at exploring their surroundings and the characters within them, the settings the two girls existed in weren't as alive and vibrant as I feel they ought to have been. Ignorance will be bliss for people who have not read the novel, but I can't help feeling a bit cheated, especially since the barking mad inhabitants of the asylum (including the staff and doctors!) afforded such a wonderful opportunity for further character development.

While there is no doubt that Maud and Sue were perfectly cast (the chemistry between the two girls was nothing short of electric), they could have used a bit more imagination with the casting of Gentleman. For such a pivotal role, I really didn't think Rupert Evans had what it takes. It requires a great amount of subtlety and finesse to play a good con man, but Evans seemed to respond to every situation with the same overly-affected, sour expression.

Where Fingersmith excels though is in breaking down the story into its smaller elements; exploring the nature of love, guilt, yearning, greed and passion. How thin is the line between love and hate? What crimes are beyond forgiveness? This adaptation also succeeds in getting right to the emotional heart of the story. This will satisfy incurable romantics and lovers of tortured love stories everywhere. Not a single opportunity was missed to drive home the lingering effect their brief love affair had on the two girls. The strength of that memory powers all their thoughts and actions for the remainder of the film; much more so than any anger or thirst for vengeance.

Sarah Waters has been single-handedly responsible for reclaiming the Victorian era for lesbians, and I applaud the BBC for not compromising on her vision. I love the grittiness, and the nuance-perfect performance by Elaine Cassidy as Maud is worth the price of the DVD alone. The scene from Maud's wedding night is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful; such a desperate plea for comfort is remarkably at odds with her otherwise restrained demeanour. The scene reveals so much in an instant about what is going on beneath the surface, and in the end, reading what is going on beneath the surface, the con within the con, is really what the story is all about.

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