Monday, May 28, 2012

A 19th Century Bound? Not Quite

The Good: Decent story, good acting
The Bad: Poor use of music, Problematic casting, Confusingly convoluted
The Basics: Confusing and dreary, Fingersmith is another depressing tale of two women, possibly in love, mired in criminal schemes in the 1800s.

A good novel should have several levels upon which it may be read. How entertaining a novel is is usually the final level upon which it is evaluated. While reading a novel, the language may captivate, the characters engage, the plot convolutions and the dialogue impress the reader enough so that it is only when the reader is finished with it that they might ask themselves if they were entertained. Funny that with books, entertainment might be the last qualification for recommendation when with movies, it is usually the first.

I consider this following my viewing of the film mini-series Fingersmith as I started my review. Fingersmith is convoluted and immediately the casting seems problematic, setting up for a reversal in the middle of the work. It occurred to me that what I was evaluating as a problem in the movie probably worked quite well in the book, assuming there was one (which there is).

Told in two parts on the DVD release, Fingersmith follows Sue Trindler, a common thief (or fingersmith in the dialect of the time), who becomes a tool in a plan by a young scoundrel named Rivers. "The Gentleman" has found a wealthy heiress out in the country, away from London. He enlists Sue to take a false name, Susan Smith, become Maud's personal servant and uses her to convince Maud to marry him.

Maud Lilly, an educated orphan taken in by her twisted uncle Christopher, has led a sheltered life reading books and copying manuscripts. From a young age to age twenty, she has lived in the darkness of Christopher's house and office. That changes when Susan enters her life. Susan brings light and when Maud is afflicted with nightmares, the pair begins sharing a bed. They have a brief affair before the return of Rivers. Susan's swindle culminates in her and Rivers committing Maud to an insane asylum.

The swindle does not go as planned. Part two retells part one in digest form from Maud's point of view and then continues the story to its resolution. The truth is, there is nothing quite like Fingersmith. It is not Bound (reviewed here!) and it is not The Usual Suspects (reviewed here!), though it bears elements from both. It is a true original, in a PBS BBC import kind of way.

One of the ways it is not imaginative is in tone. It has a somewhat stuffy British feel to it that is instantly oppressive. In the opening scenes, the viewer is given a feeling of familiarity that comes once one has watched even a single episode of Masterpiece Theater. In this film, though, the mood is worsened by the musical direction. Music in Fingersmith is scant, but it is often improperly placed, used as an accent piece or used to direct the viewer to emotions that are not necessarily organic to the viewers actual response to a scene. Thus, the music becomes somewhat overbearing and problematic in places.

Of the few problems Fingersmith has, the music is frequently the least of the problems. The casting of the two leads is a much more significant problem. Elaine Cassidy plays Maud and Sally Hawkins plays Sue and the fundamental problem is that the two look so much alike that they are virtually interchangeable. There are scenes where it takes the viewer a minute to realize who is who, a difficulty not alleviated by the fact that the two sound like one another as well. Of course, near the end of the first part, we come to understand that this is intentional. The only thing that makes the second part much easier is that there are virtually no scenes with the two together.

And while the casting is intentionally difficult on the viewer, the plot convolutions, mostly revealed through an unending series of revelations in the second part, just gum up the work even more. How all the characters relate becomes more of a nightmare than trying to decipher Mullholland Drive (reviewed here!). While this might work in a Dickensian novel, in Fingersmith, the viewer is already confused enough and by the time the layers of relations and lies begin unfolding, the viewer is just ready for the end.

This is not to say that the movie does not have much to offer, though it most certainly does not satisfy the viewer who is looking for an uplifting story with lesbian characters. Good luck finding one of those! What Fingersmith does offer is a chance to see interesting characters playing off one another in a pageant that is generally well-acted.

Charles Dance, who I was impressed by in his too-brief performance in Alien 3, appears as the creepy Christopher Lilly and he is impressive and brutal in the role. He is devoid of humanity and the consistency with which he plays this character is utterly convincing. And while Imelda Staunton's Mrs. Sucksby might bare the brunt of the character and plot problems in part two, Staunton is genius in the role. She adds a bug-eyed crazy quality that makes the character come alive.

The movie hinges on Cassidy and Hawkins and to their credit they have great on-screen chemistry. Part of the problem, especially with the second part, is that they are not on-screen interacting nearly enough. As odd as it might seem to be given the rest of the review, perhaps Fingersmith would have worked better with a third part, drawing out their courting before the reversal at the end of the first part. As it is, the ultimate resolution to the movie does not sell this viewer, through no fault of the acting.

Ultimately, Fingersmith is just shy of a "recommend" from me with its pacing being off and how much it made me work for so little. I have heard good things about Tipping The Velvet and while the Aisling Walsh (Director) and Peter Ransley (screenplay) interpretation of Sarah Waters' Fingersmith didn't sell me, it didn't turn me off to giving her a shot on another work.


For other television movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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