The Lesbian Movie Marathon, The Nightwatch

Sarah Waters’s novel, The Nightwatch, interests me partly because I had two lesbian great-aunts, one of whom (like the character of Kay), drove ambulances during World War II, and the other was in the forces and did something to do with anti-aircraft guns.

Andy’s already written a post about the recent BBC adaptation which I’ll try not to replicate too much here, but I agree with her points that, while it didn’t suck and I certainly didn’t hate it, overall, it also left me feeling disappointed.

Along with Fingersmith I think this is the most respectful of the adaptations of Waters’s work so far,  definitely the best produced and acted that we’ve seen.   I felt that the novel was being taken seriously and the actors were bringing everything they could to the text.  I thought the performances of Anna Wilson-Jones as Julia particularly good as she only had a few scenes, and also Harry Treadway as Duncan, who made his character more interesting to me than the Duncan in the book.

I do think that making it into such a short film meant that we were treated to much simplified versions of the book’s highly complex characters, with the result that Kay was too nice and good, Helen too wide-eyed and innocent, Julia a bit too predatory, and Viv’s boyfriend too obviously a creep from the beginning.   Also, what happened to the vaguely sinister Mr Mundy who seemed to have turned into the grandfather from the Werther’s Original adverts?

However, appreciating the limitations of time and money, I can live with all of that; my more serious problem with this adaptation lies in the representation of gender and lesbian sexuality, particularly in the representation of butch identity.  In this respect, what I think the adaptation shows is that while we’ve reached the stage of being able to represent lesbians, we still struggle with representing certain kinds of lesbian identity and experience.

Like Andy, I was surprised by the casting of Anna Maxwell Martin as Kay.  Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s a good actress (excellent as Esther in Bleak House), but personally I found her deeply unconvincing as an aristocratic, butch lesbian.

When I see Kay in my mind, I see someone like Valentine Ackland or Radcliffle Hall.

Ideally I see her character being her played by someone like a young Vanessa Redgrave or Tilda Swinton (yes, I know they could never afford Tilda Swinton), but someone who can really occupy space in a convincingly butch way.  I imagine Kay as tall and broad-shouldered, tough, sexually confident, even aggressive, but Maxwell Martin is so tiny and delicate-looking, and there’s something self-effacing about the way she occupies space that just doesn’t feel right to me.  I can’t imagine her having rough, drunken sex with a stranger in an alleyway as Kay does in the novel.  She also came across as too good and nice; Kay is one of the most interesting characters in The Nightwatch and certainly has a heroic side, but I wouldn’t call her “nice”.  The representation was strange in several ways.  Why did the adaptation’s Kay cut off her hair because she was upset about seeing a family killed in the bombing?  This doesn”t happen in the novel where I doubt Kay would ever have had long hair (I expect she would have had an Eton crop).  As Andy says, it makes some link between butchness and tragedy that isn’t in the novel.  It’s also interesting that the adaptation has Kay breaking down and crying and being comforted by Helen, while in the same part of the book we have her drinking all night – I think Kay is the kind of butch who, even if she did cry, wouldn’t have let anyone else see her doing it.  Really the problem here is that the writers didn’t seem to appreciate that a butch lesbian in this period would have been following a certain code of behaviour.  I also felt that the character was desexualised.  Did anyone find this film sexy from a lesbian perspective? I was annoyed that the most explicit sex scene was between a heterosexual couple in a film in which the majority of the characters are lesbians.

Perhaps most telling, though, was the total erasure of the other butch character, Mickey, who is Kay’s best friend in the book, and her replacement with a feminine, heterosexual character in the adaptation.  Possibly they didn’t want to represent another butch character, but I think it’s more likely that the writers simply didn’t see the importance of Mickey, just as they don’t seem to see the significance of butchness.  Mickey is important, not least becasue she’s a happy butch.  Is it possible to represent a happy butch lesbian?

The leeriness aound butchness has plagued other Waters adaptations, such as Tipping the Velvet which had a lot more sex, but cast a woman who couldn’t pass as male in a story in which the whole plot turns on us believing that the character can pass as male.  Affinity was more offensive, turning the butch working-class character of Viggers into a predatory older woman and not at all understanding that the plot turned on the class differences and invisibility of the butch – the point is that no one can see Viggers for what she really is.

It makes me wonder when we will see a really convincing and sexy representation of butchness in mainstream television (haven’t seen Lip Service so don’t know how that was).

The adaptation did make me want to re-read The Nightwatch again though, so you may be hearing more about it in the not to distant future.

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