Is Nan "too spoiled and stained for love"? Will she risk her blossoming relationship with Florence when Kitty inevitably returns to rekindle their affair? Nan's couplings, while tastefully done, do carry what Waters calls "a queer erotic charge". They are graphic by BBC standards. But the sterling writing and performances will captivate even the most sensitive viewers, making this groundbreaking mini-series, to quote one character, "a delightful evening... a rare treat". --Donald Liebenson
Andrews Davies' screenplay is excellent, sticking close to the novel while judiciously trimming the plot down to essentials. Together with some clever direction and editing, it intelligently explores the novel's interlinked themes of performance, display, gender and identity. The sound and visual effects of the music hall pursue Nan throughout her journey from innocence to experience. Drumrolls, cymbal clashes and fade-to-black 'spotlights' accompany pivotal moments in her life. A recurring motif of dressing in front of mirrors subtly underlines how Nan variously expresses, hides and reinvents herself - sexually, physically, emotionally - as she moves from oyster girl to male impersonator to kept woman to socialist campaigner. At times, the series comes into its own beautifully, as with the intercut sequence of Nan and Kitty rehearsing their act together.
Surprisingly, too, none of the novel's bawdiness is lost - Nan's story is here in all its joys, pains and dildos - but again the production proves itself worthy. The sex scenes are explicit - but rather than just providing titillation, they always further the themes and character development.
The acting is a little uneven - certain cast members play it straighter than others (excuse the pun) - but the leads all do well with the material. Florence is less forthright and assured than in the book, but Jodhi May gives her grace and sweetness enough to make us root for her at the end. The only problem - to this reviewer - lies in Kitty, Nan's first love. The script misses a trick when it skips the novel's pivotal moment for her character (her crisis after a performance is interrupted by hecklers accusing the pair of being lesbians). Where she could have presented yet another facet of the theme of appearance and identity - her rushed, concealing marriage prompted by paranoia that exposure as a lesbian will blight her career and cost her the public adulation she craves - instead she emerges simply as a cliched, confused bisexual, unable to choose between Nan and Walter until it is too late.
On the whole, though, this is an brave and admirable adaptation that captures the essence of the novel and is highly entertaining in its own right.
The product is "Tipping the Velvet", an unashamed exploration of gender and lesbian sexuality in Victorian England that deliberately questions manhood and womanhood, and the space between the two. We follow the protagonist, Nan Astley, on a bildungsroman from innocence to experience, through love and betrayal, from cross-dressing entertainment halls to dildo-wielding dominatrixes to proto-socialist paradise. If it sounds at all crude, it isn't - "Tipping the Velvet" *is* explicit, but the focus of the adaptation is not Nan's sexual initiations but her emotional trials. Her sexual explorations are part and parcel of this, but at no point does it degenerate into gratuitous displays. On the contrary, the sex scenes are accomplished with a commendable grace and poise, removing the usual aura of sordidness that surrounds the portrayal of same-sex relationships. The themed imagery comes thick and fact - the title itself being a euphemism - and begs us to think about the implications of acting, queerness, femininity, moral norms and love.
Furthermore, the overall standard of production itself is high, while Andrew Davies' script is spot-on for tone and characterisation. A few anachronistic slips can be forgiven I think. :-)
Overall, excellent thought-provoking entertainment for people of all sexual persuasions.
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