Andrew Billen - Women in love

Television - The Victorian heroine is given backbone in a tale full of twists. By Andrew Billen

After playing the incredibly well-meaning but incredibly stupid Vera Drake in Mike Leigh's patronising recent film, what a pleasure it must have been for Imelda Staunton in Fingersmith (Sundays, 9pm) to be given the line "I'll get you a nice cup of tea". Mrs Drake, the mumsy 1950s abortionist, considered a cuppa the proper response to any crisis, and Staunton must have drunk a gallon of Typhoo making the picture. Now, in this three-part adaptation of a novel by Sarah Waters, she drinks some more.

She plays Mrs Sucksby, a Victorian Vera Drake gone bad, a matriarch who presides over a family of pickpockets ("fingersmiths"), conmen and foundlings (whom she views as currency). The riotous thing about her is that she thinks she's warm - hence the constant brew-ups, the tears that are always swilling in her eyes, and the way her arms arch into an involuntary hug when there's a knock at the door. When a child crashes in and begs to view a public hanging from her window, Mrs S - bless her - lets her, even though she normally charges a premium rent for these seats.

The trailers told us that, with Fingersmith, we plunge into the world of Dickens's London. We do not. We are instead in the world of the Victorian sensation novel - Wilkie Collins and all points south - or, rather, the world of the sensation novel reinterpreted through current feminist thought. Naturally, this is an improvement, although Waters's real skill is plotting stories as twisty as a country mile.

I thought, foolish me, that I had the measure of the plot from the opener (27 March), in which a conman gains access to a rich man's country house and seduces his ward, Maud, who does not know that upon marriage she will inherit a fortune. The conman, Rivers, works in league with Maud's maid, Sue, both of whom have been planted there by Mrs Sucksby. The twist seems to be that Maud and Sue fall in Sapphic love and ruin everything. But that's not it, or only partly it.

The twist in the next instalment (3 April) floored me. Without giving too much away, it involves unreliable narration, much subterfuge and mistaken identity on a heroic scale. In the final part, there is more of all three. It opens with Sue marching round the yard of a lunatic asylum talking to a woman who has, in total confidence, told a fellow inmate there are creatures on the moon. "My name is Susan - you must believe me," she implores. But can we?

As a New Stateswoman reviewer - here, I am fully aware, on sufferance - I should at this point offer some commentary on the twists performed by a contemporary woman writer on a (primarily) male Victorian literary genre. The most interesting is the rejection of the Victorian convention that fair young women are "innocent". The innocence of the heiress Maud has been compromised by the pornographic literature she helps her bibliophile guardian catalogue and retail. As he grows blind, her job changes from massaging the accounts to massaging his libido by reading out loud to him. Waters leaves us in no doubt that she believes such literature corrupts, but she introduces the notion that this corruption may prove liberating for women, by granting the usually spineless Victorian heroine a bit of backbone.

This being Waters, the author of Tipping the Velvet (I forget what act exactly this is slang for), we also get lesbian action. In many a scene, Sue slips a white cotton chemise over Maud's naked torso. Finally, she gives her a practical demonstration of what will be required of her on her wedding night. It is done in the best possible taste, but the heterosexual male and - presumably - homosexual woman viewer is rewarded with no more than a glimpse of a single recumbent nipple. More graphic treatment would have argued against the "porn is bad" message. Implied, however, is the notion that lesbian love counters the pornographic gaze of men.

Faced with Staunton's storming performance, the rest of the cast could have given up. Instead they raise their games. Sally Hawkins as Sue and Elaine Cassidy as Maud go for and, sometimes, at each other with passion. Charles Dance plays the literary perv uncle in such a way as to make literary perversity look a lifestyle choice worth considering. Rupert Evans as the gentleman conman is excellent - full of twitchy energy - even though he looks like Richard O'Sullivan in Robin's Nest and has the inverted-comma Seventies sideboards to match.

In the Radio Times, Waters praised her own novel for its "breakneck speed" and then accused Peter Ransley's adaptation of moving with "dizzying swiftness". Actually, I think it could have been speeded up still more; it would have been better as a one-off, two-hour event rather than a serial. The director Aisling Walsh, whose recent film Song for a Raggy Boy was underrated, chooses muted greys and blues for her take on Victorian London, and muddy greens for the scenes in what is repeatedly called the "bloody" country. The dull surface perhaps makes the experience less of a romp than it could have been. Something else is to blame - I am not sure what - for the show's inability to make your heart break. But Fingersmith is a fine piece of work and a lot, lot cleverer than the Oscar-nominated Vera Drake.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times