“It’s only human nature, after all.”
If you’re like me, you didn’t see this film until it was released on DVD in the states. For us, it’s hard to imagine seeing this film (after you’ve seen all three parts) on TV as it was shown in the UK on the BBC — get to Episode 2 and you’ll see what I mean. Fasten your seatbelts. This is one film you’re not going to forget any time soon.
The film, based on the novel of the same name written by lesbian-period-drama-wunderkind Sarah Waters, centers around the coming of age of a young oyster girl named Nan Astley (played by brunette stunner Rachael Stirling), who lives with her family in Whitstable. Her life is turned on it’s ear when her sister’s suitor, Tony, a dodgy, bisexual fella who works in the theatre, offers the entire Astley clan tickets to attend the variety show the coming weekend.
Keep an eye out for Nan’s boyfriend, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
When she first lays eyes on psuedo-male-impersonator Kitty Butler (played by Keeley Hawes), she’s an utter goner. Even after watching the film as many times as I have (and yes, I’ve read the book many times over as well) it’s still a delight to watch this first sequence. And I still have a laugh over the throwing of the rose at the end of the show, as Nan sits in an empty theatre, alone with that spinning rose as it draws nearer and nearer still…only to be caught by the girl in the row behind her. Groans and giggles abound.
The tricky part of adapting a book of such richness and breadth is that, of course, some details must be cut, some nuances lost – but, I think you’ll find what you gain is much more, especially in the hands of screenwriter Andrew Davies. He manages to keep the dense plot moving everforward without losing any of the original sensuality, character development, or intimacies that you may have come to treasure from reading the book. After all, the film is nearly 3 hours long, and you may be thankful for having it dissected into three, hour-long segments. But, aside of the practical reasons behind this segmentation, there is also the sense of providing us with a very clear arc by which Nan will develop as a woman. Part 1: youth, first love. Part 2: Growing up, seeing the hardness of life as it exists. Part 3: Adult love, adult sensibilities.
Nan continues to return to the theatre to see Kitty’s performances, eventually shucking aside her nagging boyfriend (with whom she kanoodles in a rowboat on the shore near the Astley’s Osyter Parlour). When at last, Kitty hands Nan a rose, you will begin to have a sense that things are in motion to bring these two together. There is an otherworldly silence that falls across the scene, as if you, too, have stopped breathing. Sublime film making in every sense here, as long as you let yourself go with it.
Of course, Kitty invites Nan backstage later that same night, and Nan arrives, still holding to her breast the rose Kitty has given her. There are plenty of moments of foreshadowing sprinkled throughout the film – but don’t worry about figuring everything out. Remember my cardinal rule: you’re along for the ride. Don’t ask too many questions. Let it unravel before you.
It is this first meeting between Kitty and Nan (as Nan gushes about Kitty’s clothing, her hair, her “ways”) that sets the tone for their entire relationship as it grows throughout the remainder of the film. Don’t worry, I haven’t given anything away there. Kitty invites Nan to become her dresser. We get more than our fair taste of dream sequences in which we realize Nan, although she has no name for it, has started to have feelings for Kitty. So, it is no surprise to us when Kitty (who has been invited to take her show to London) asks Nan to come with her, and be with her, and Nan jumps at the chance.
It isn’t until Kitty’s catches Nan in one of her suits that she decides to include Nan in her London act. The two rehearse relentlessly, share a small room in a theatrical lodging house in Brixton (where they share a very, very narrow bed), and are essentially inseparable. What a recipe for love! There really is no escape, and you might as well get used to that sort of suffocating feeling you get waiting for Kitty and Nan to get together. It is absolutely delicious watching these two women deal with their forced intimacy, and for me, what a treat seeing them in drag. It’s funny to imagine a world in which having short hair, despite the feminine curves of your mouth or body, immediately marked you as a male.
Finally, after her outrageously successful debut, Nan and Kitty break down and get down. The sequence begins at dinner, during which Kitty and Nan drink champagne, dance, and celebrate. They’re the toast of the town, after all, with much to be happy about. As Kitty watches Nan dance with a trombonist from the band, a surge of jealousy overtakes her and she storms out. Nan follows and the two fight in a carriage, headed home. It is within this rage that Kitty finally drops her guard and the two kiss. It is rather steamy – rightfully so, you’re led to believe this sort of thing was relatively taboo. However, the more I read about the Victorian era, the more I realize it was not altogether uncommon for two women to be romantically involved. Still – this first sex scene between Kitty and Nan is everything you hope it will be: sweet, hot, explicit, and romantic.
The remainder of Part 1 shows the women becoming closer and closer still, engaging us with a pulsing montage of the two performing, sightseeing, living and loving. You’re meant to realize that Kitty and Nan have fallen in love and are seeing one another, secretly and exclusively. It’s only sad for a moment when Nan discovers that while this is her first time (at love, at sex), Kitty has had a whole bevy of experiences with people of either gender. Well, she’s in the theatre, innit she? Nan accepts it, rather gracefully, when you stop to think about it, and the two spend six blissful months together. But, when Nan returns home to see her family and she finally confides in her sister about the true nature of her relationship with Kitty she gets a taste of reality. Rejected by her sister, she returns to London early, catching Kitty and her manager, Mr. Bliss, in a compromising situation.
Part 2 begins with Kitty announcing she’s to be married to be Mr. Bliss and can no longer see Nan. Dejected, enraged, depressed, unemployed, broken-hearted, Nan flees to a cheap boarding house where she all but disappears. She refuses to eat, refuses to bathe. And who wouldn’t? First love is as wonderful as it is painful when it finally ends, but given the unique circumstances of a Victorian-era lesbian love affair the sensation that life was really over with the end of their relationship is razor sharp and utterly brutal. It is this that makes Kitty’s betrayal even more unbearable.
Director Geoffrey Sax has a great sense of the importance of tactile memory – showing us Nan’s flashbacks of Mr. Bliss’ hands grabbing Kitty’s shoulder during Nan’s flight from the theatre. She returns the next day, takes some money, her costumes, and writes “I have taken only what is mine” on the mirror in the dressing room they once shared. Over the course of what I assume is months, because like Nan’s character we really have no idea how much time has passed, Nan begins to unravel. Truly alone, she let’s everything fall away, sometimes spending her days pacing in her room filled with rage. Other days, unmoving, she lays in a lump on a mangy bed in her gray lifeless room, surviving on scraps of food brought to her by a housemaid.
When Nan reads Kitty and Bliss have married, she decides to try moving on. But what will she do with herself? Opportunities for women during this time were severely limited. It is then when she decides she might try living as a man. And why not? It’s not as if it could possibly be any worse than being a single woman living in London trying to make her way…or…could it?
It’s interesting then that Nan, who has decided to try to live as a man in order to have more opportunity, turns to a life of prostitution as Tommy Atkins, a young British soldier, for the quick and easy money. In a few moments, she has enough to keep her for a few weeks. With a steady enough income, she takes a room with Mrs. Milne and her developmentally disabled daughter, Grace. This period of Nan’s life is gone into much more detailed in Water’s book, but I think screenwriter Andrew Davies made some good decisions here. From her 8 schilling a week flat in the Milne’s home, Nan continues her nighttime pursuit of financial freedom and settles into a fairly comfortable routine. Of course, it’s when you least expect it that life throws you a bone. Enter dishy brunette Florence (played by Jodhi May – who you may recognize from other period-film-lesbian-drama Sister My Sister).
Over their first tentative “date,” Nan realizes she could never be honest with Florance about what it is that she does for a living. Its important only insomuch as this is the first time Nan has had to face the reality of what she has become in the shadow of her broken relationship with Kitty. She turns to the streets, and is nearly raped by one of her johns. Instead, she is saved by a servant of Diana Lethaby’s (aka “Duckface” from Four Weddings and a Funeral – Anna Chancellor). Nan is swept away in Diana’s carriage and brought into Diana’s confidence…and bedroom. The two begin a tumultuous affair and Nan becomes a kept woman.
This is where you might have trouble believing this film was actually shown on television. The love scenes between Nan and Diana are torridly hot, and extremely explicit. It is positively daring what executive producer Sally Head and director Geoffrey Sax have done here with their vision of Water’s book. I remember how shocked and amazed I was when I first saw Tipping the Velvet. For those of you who couldn’t make it through Part 1 because the film is a period piece, you may want to have a rethink.
Before long, Nan is sucked into London’s underground lesbian subculture and into Diana’s darkly perverse world. At times left utterly alone, almost held captive in the great empty expanse of Diana’s estate, and other times the shiny prize put on display for all of Diana’s friends to enjoy. Months, years pass. Nan has now discovered erotic love – you know the kind we got an eyeful of in films like Fatal Attraction and 9 1/2 weeks.
One evening, while Nan accompanies Diana at the opera, she runs into an old friend who tells her that Kitty is performing down the street at Strand Hall. Nan breaks away to see Kitty, if only for a moment, but it’s no use. She’s busted by Diana’s manservant and in a bumpy ride back to the estate, Diana and Nan have hostile words. It really is the beginning of the end of their twisted affair. And sure enough, after Nan has a moment — okay, several moments – of indiscretion with Zena (one of Diana’s maids – Sally Hawkins, who later appears in the adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith ) during Diana’s 40th birthday party, Diana throws the two of them out.
Part 3 begins with Zena and Nan hitting the streets, distraught and penniless. They sell some of Nan’s clothes in order to spend the night in a cold, dank boarding house. Of course, if you have a heart and are not completely jaded, you’ll be saddened as I was when in the morning Zena is nowhere to be found.
Destitute, bleeding, and dispossessed Nan wanders the streets of London eventually making her way to Mrs. Milne’s, the only person who had ever treated her with a modicum of respect. Finding her gone, she inquires about Florence who lived across the way. You remember Florence, don’t you? The sweet girl Nan had tea with one afternoon before being abducted by the succubus Diana? Well, so does Nan. She spends the next day walking to Bethnal Green, where Florence is said to be living on Quilter street. Frail, hungry, probably suffering from a concussion and still bleeding, Nan collapses on Florence’s doorstep.
If you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ll have noticed a pattern with Nan and the women in her life. Anyone who gives her half the time of day becomes a love interest – romantic, erotic, friendship. So, it will come as no surprise to you that Part 3 finds Nan falling in love, once more, with Florence who offers her a place to stay and help in finding work. It is ultimately in Florence, her brother Ralph (whom Nan mistakes at first to be Florence’s husband), and the infant in their care that Nan finally finds her place in the world.
The final word: when comparing films that are based on books, Tipping the Velvet is among the rare few that gets it right. Owing to its brilliant casting (the chemistry between Stirling and self-professed bisexual Hawes is undeniable) it’s high gloss production, and its bravery, Tipping the Velvet takes risks, chances in a time where playing gay could still cost you future roles and projects. Everyone I know who’s seen the film falls in love with Rachael Stirling, and who could blame them? Even though her performance is over the top at times, she is utterly stunning as the cross-dressing tom Nan Astley. And while Tipping the Velvet is at times cheesy, and other times bleak, you won’t soon forget it.
French & Saunders take on Tipping the Velvet:
Wiki facts: Tipping the Velvet
Is Tipping the Velvet rotten or fresh?