Tipping the Velvet

By Moira Sullivan

The most enchanting story of a young woman growing up in England and searching for her identity is the foundation for Tipping the Velvet. Based on a novel by Sarah Waters,  chosen by the New York Times as the best novel of 1998. Making this three part story telecast for the BBC in 2002 was not without problems for some of the scenes are sexually explicit, including the implications of the title itself.  Geoffrey Sax is the director of this straightforward television drama, but the story is done in a captivating way.  Rachel Stirling is Nan Astley, a young woman who falls in love with a male performance artist, Miss Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes) who is the most exciting woman she has ever known. She eventually tours with Butler  as her sidekick, and unbeknownst to her at the time, their performances had a large fan base among London lesbians. Waters takes liberty with the historical period of the Victorian Era and surmises that there could have well been an underground lesbian community.  Alas Butler disappoints her and Nan in the second part of the narrative becomes the sexual slave of dominatrix Diana Letheby (Anna Chancellor). She is rescued by her from being sodomized just in time after dressing up as a man and performing sexual favors for men for pay. In exchange for this she becomes Diana's pet and captures the awe and envy of her predatory and game playing lesbians friends. When things don’t work out, Nan is really down on her luck but remembers the kindness of her neighbor Florence Banner (Jodhi May), a socialist activist She looks her up and slowly the two woman enter into a mature and loving relationship.
Rachel Stirling is the daughter of Diana Rigg and while their appearances are quite different even the young Diana, Stirling has the same brilliant diction as her mother, every line delivered with force and clarity. At the time of this production Stirling was 28 and she clearly carries the story skillfully. An avowed heterosexual she said she had no problem playing Nan and wanted her performance to be as realistic as possible.  It is thoroughly entertaining to watch the fascination the audience has for women as male performance artists, which at the time was one of the few ways they could feel free and independent. Rachel Stirling has not had a central role in a film since Tipping the Velvet, which is unfortunate as she is such a fine actress. But like her mother she has done considerable work on the stage for productions such as The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night‘s Dream and A Woman of No Importance. At any rate Tipping the Velvet is a pearl of a made for TV film, and engaging from beginning to end.

For Movie Magazine this is Moira Sullivan

© 2010 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 08/18/10
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