I don't know much about British author Sarah Waters, but from what I gather she has written four mystery romances and co-authored a fifth, most of them set in Victorian times and centering on lesbian themes. Television has already turned two of them into well-received productions--"Tipping the Velvet" (2002) and "Fingersmith" (2005)--and now Box TV, Cité Amerique, Castel Film, Movie Central, and the Logo Network (from MTV Networks and Paramount Home Entertainment) offer up a third, "Affinity" (2008), making its DVD debut after showings at a series of gay and lesbian film festivals.
"Affinity" is at once a gothic mystery, a romance, and a quasi-supernatural tale, with plenty of moody atmospherics to go with it. However, for avid fans of mysteries, romances, or stories of the supernatural, the movie may seem quite measured, perhaps even sluggish, because while it is all three of the above, it doesn't really settle down into any one of them long enough to feel satisfying. I suspect that Ms. Waters' novel was too intricate to condense satisfactorily into a ninety-minute teleplay, so rather than the movie providing a gratifying whole, we get bits and pieces of brilliance that don't quite hang together very well. It's not a bad movie, just a slow, gloomy, oddly disjointed one.
The film's setting is London in the 1870s. It was an era known for its sexual repression and its heightened interest in spiritualism (mediums, seances, spirits of the dead, that sort of thing). Ms. Waters weaves these elements together in the story, yet she doesn't quite make either of them very provocative. This is a fairly tepid production, after all, so there is little that is titillating or frightening about it. In the long run, it's a rather old-fashioned melodrama, which I do not mean as an indictment, just an observation.
The main character is Margaret Pryor (Ana Madeley), a wealthy, single young lady in her late twenties or early thirties, an age when Victorian society expected most respectable women be married and starting a family. Not only is Margaret unwed and still living with her mother, but her father has just died; plus, she has a piggish suitor, Theophilus Finch (Vincent Leclerc), making unseemly advances upon her; and, worse still, her former lover, Helen (Ferelith Young), has just married her brother! Margaret is not a happy person.
In an attempt to assuage her troubles, Margaret decides to visit the local prison for women, Milbank, on a regular basis to listen to and counsel the inmates there, to help "mould their character," as one person suggests. It seems an odd thing to do, visit a prison to get over your depression. Why would she do this? To occupy her time? To take her mind off her own troubles? To soothe her own soul? Or to find comfort in those who are more wretched than herself? The movie raises more questions than it answers, which is a good thing in many ways while frustrating in others.
While visiting Milbank, Margaret strikes up a friendship with one of the prisoners, a young woman named Selina Dawes (Zoe Tapper), whom the court convicted for being a fraudulent medium and indirectly causing the death of a participant at one of her seances. Selina claimed the spirits caused the person's death, not her, but the court wasn't buying it. In any case, Margaret and Selina almost immediately bond, find an affinity with one another. But what is the basis for their mutual attachment? Is it simply a physical attraction between two women who fall in love at first sight? Is it because Margaret sees in the medium a means to contact her dead father? Or is Selina exploiting the deep sorrow she sees in Margaret in order to win her confidence and possibly help her get released?
Then, mysterious things start to happen: a vase of flowers shows up out of nowhere in Margaret's bedroom; one of Margaret's valued lockets goes missing; a plait of Selina's hair appears under Margaret's pillow. Perhaps Selina does have paranormal powers.
Certainly, Margaret sees in Selina a woman as unfairly imprisoned as herself, the one behind bars and walls, the other behind the hypocritical veneer of a suppressive society and a controlling, manipulative family. And that's about as far as the story goes until the not-so-surprising surprise ending.
As I said, "Affinity" is a rather old-fashioned melodrama. Its positive factors are its fine acting, its quiet tension, its development of a dark and moody tone, its convincing recreation of nineteenth-century London (filmed, for reasons of lower cost, in Romania), and its persuasive costumes and set design.
Unfortunately, these factors may not be enough to keep everyone's attention, largely because the two principal characters, Margaret and Selina, are not particularly sympathetic. They are both distant and aloof, and not even Margaret's occasional first-person voice-over narration can warm us up to her. In the end, "Affinity" looks well made and well acted, but it is rather mundane in its development and execution, with neither the love story nor the hints of the supernatural making much of an impact.
Despite the movie's being labeled "full-screen" on the back of the keep case, Paramount Home Entertainment do, in fact, present it on disc in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Whether that means the studio cropped the image top and bottom, I have no idea. Of greater importance, it looks fine.
The director purposely chose black, blue, and iron-gray tints to establish a cold, hard look for the film, especially effective in presenting the prison as a stark, dismal place, but effective, too, in suggesting the stark rigidity of the Victorian era. Because of the film's bleak appearance, then, one has to understand that the film is not necessarily going to reveal a wealth of inner detail. Nevertheless, for a movie of its kind, it is quite good, actually, with reasonably sharp object delineation. The image is somewhat overly smooth and soft in facial close-ups, yet a fine film grain accompanies everything, adding a realistic depth and texture to the picture. Dim interior shots are murky, to be sure, but the director probably intended them to look that way.
Although the audio engineers reproduce the soundtrack in an ordinary Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, it does have some atmospheric nuances going for it, noticeable in the opening prison scenes. Indeed, the whole first half of the movie conveys a sense of quiet foreboding, thanks in no small measure to the sound. One finds the front-channel stereo amply wide; small, subtle sounds distinctly audible; and rear-channel musical bloom sufficient, depending on one's playback system. What one will not find is much or any surround activity beyond the musical ambience, much of a frequency spread, or much in the way of dynamic range or dynamic punch.
For a relatively low-budget production, a surprising number of extras accompany the "Affinity" movie on disc. The first item is a six-minute featurette, "The Making of Affinity," which, I'm afraid does not shed a whole lot of light on the film that we couldn't have guessed. The second item is a bonus scene, "Selina and Mrs. Lewis," which the director was wise in leaving out of the final cut as it simply distracts from the movie's continuity. Next, there is a series of interviews with the author, Sarah Waters, the screenwriter, Andrew Bate, and stars Zoe Tapper and Anna Madeley. Each interview lasts from five to ten minutes, and they provide more valuable information than the making-of featurette.
To conclude the extras, we get a widescreen "Affinity" trailer, some peeks at other Logo television productions, fourteen scene selections but no chapter insert, and English as the only spoken language.
Clearly, I am not the intended audience for "Affinity," my being neither a woman nor gay. However, the movie transcends such boundaries, and while it breaks no new ground as a thriller or a romance, it should appeal to viewers interested in a story of complex interpersonal relationships. Think of it, then, as a character study rather than a mystery, centering on a strong and tangled attraction between two fascinating, if in the final analysis rather disappointing, people.