Review of the BBC Adaptation of “Fingersmith”

Sue and Maud

Compared with Tipping the Velvet, many viewers will find this drama slower-moving and more serious, but also perhaps more faithful to its source. The slower pace allows viewers to feast on the setting, costumes and acting, and also contributes wonderfully to the mounting tension between Sue and Maud that begins when Sue suggestively rubs Maud’s tooth with a thimble, and culminates in a bedroom scene which first seems to veer towards the comic (with Sue bewildered at Maud’s naïve questions), then becomes sweet and romantic.

Until the morning after, where anguish at the marriage of Maud to Gentleman looms.

The second episode starts off considerably slower than the first, as it attempts to keep the conspiracy a secret from unsuspecting viewers. But soon, Sue and Gentleman’s plan is discovered by Maud, who feels betrayed. Elaine Cassidy demonstrates the true depth of Maud’s character beneath her brittle exterior, as Maud shows the full extent of her love for Sue despite the betrayal. Sally Hawkins, in turn, demonstrates her excellent ability, particularly in a scene in which Sue is imploring the doctors to look after Maud.

Rupert Evans continues to be one-dimensional, and Imelda Staunton continues to seem more humorous than sinister. The scenes in the lunatic asylum were also incredibly short, once again relying on the viewer having read the book, or at least being content to be confused.

The third and final installment is where the adaptation truly shines. Maud, disgusted and suspicious of the Lant Street inhabitants, learns the true extent of the scheme she is entangled in, while Sue is still imprisoned in the asylum. Maud, imprisoned in her own way, attempts to escape, while Sue’s illiteracy is mistaken for further evidence of her “madness.”

Eventually, Sue escapes in a manner that is true to the novel, and is just as exciting and suspenseful as Sarah Waters’s original creation. But it isn’t explained how Sue and the young boy who helped her escape suddenly arrive in London after stealing some clothes, depending again on the viewer’s ability to fill in the gaps. Mrs. Sucksby, who initially came across comically, is not so funny anymore as she reveals the final twist in the story, to which Cassidy’s Maud responds superbly.

When Sue eventually returns to Lant Street, there is a dramatic scene full of revelation and confusion, cumulating in the stabbing of Gentleman, another turn of events that might have been bewildering to those who have not read the book. After this, time leaps forward, and we learn through Sue’s narration what has befallen each of the characters.

Although it would be lengthy and time-consuming to dramatize all the events that unfolded, the viewer cannot but feel a little cheated by learning the characters’ fates via voice-over after such a dramatic and visual build-up. Fortunately, a wonderful, touching conclusion rewards the viewer’s perseverance.

Some reviewers have stated that this series is likely to leave the viewer feeling depressed and cynical about human nature, but I found it inspiring. Although it is rife with deception and betrayal, it also bristles with energy, and, ultimately, love–which in the end, does conquer all.

Fingersmith will be released on DVD in the U.S. on September 13, 2005