What to say of you liked it
A tender dramatisation of Sarah Waters’ exquisite novel about the first love between a vulnerable young heiress and the thief sent to seduce her to the charms of a duplicitous scoundrel.
What to say of you didn’t like it
A tacky way for middle-class men to indulge in the mystifying masculine fascination of lesbian sex by claiming they are watching for the artfully-wrought, profound storyline while only perking up from the Sunday Times crossword when the two leading ladies start necking in bed.
What was good about it?
• Rupert Evans as the cad Richard Rivers who callously plots to elope with the wealthy but susceptible Maud to pillage her fortune before dumping her in an asylum. Rivers’ accent and disposition oscillate violently between the moment he first visits Maud and compliments her with poetic platitudes that weaken her resistance and when his true intentions are revealed when he drops in on Sue and sadistically kicks over an effigy of his victim. He even looks like a villain with his supercilious expressions, thin lips, odd cowboy hat, straggly long hair and pitiless eyes.
• Elaine Cassidy who instils in Maud the innocence and wonder of a child with the contrasting neuroticism and fretting of an infirm pensioner.
• Sally Hawkins as Sue who narrates the tale with an objective detachment and empathetically portrays Sue’s resentment at Rivers’ planned betrayal of Maud, but who is coerced to adhere to his cruelty because of his capacity for flashes of brutal rage.
• The typically ornate period detail so endemic of BBC dramas with the atmospheric gothic architecture straight out of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the restrictive petticoats and corsets to symbolise the suffocating repression of the upper class characters and the pained, polite dialogue that masks the emotional illiteracy.
• Charles Dance as Maud’s oppressive uncle, Mr Lilly, who seems to have taken root in his study surrounded by hundreds of books which he protects by forbidding all but Maud to step more than a few feet into his room.
• The slowly developing relationship between Sue and Maud as they learn to trust each other. Maud savours the companionship of her new maid while Sue enjoys the benefits of a life away from the choking grime of London. However, the reason they end up spending each night in bed together (so Sue would be close at hand when her mistress needed her medicinal drops) could have been torn from the script of a Carry On film.
What was bad about it?
The love scene between Maud and Sue was a little too dextrous considering both had “never had a sweetheart” as there were no clashing teeth, bumping heads, trembling hands or any of the other symptoms of virginal purity; instead Sue seems to have well earned her sobriquet of fingersmith through more than just her thieving.
• The too limited scenes spent at Sue’s London home in the company of Mrs Sucksby (Imelda Staunton) and Mr Ibbs (David Troughton) that added some joyous humour to what was otherwise a fairly solemn staid affair. The glacial repression of the characters whether real (Maud) or false (Rivers) ensure that the narrative crawls along at a tortuous tempo and the admittedly demure sex scene appears to be reward for the dog-like devotion the viewer for sticking with the ponderous pace.