Wow, this is a relentlessly grim story. Based on Michel Faber’s 2003 novel of the same title, The Crimson Petal and the White is a four-hour, four-episode British television serial set in Victorian London. Following the ups and (especially) downs of a notorious prostitute named Sugar, the story revels in the grit and filth of the era. It’s tough to call to mind any character who is not debauched or mad or treacherous or buffoonish or in in some way hopelessly compromised. Imagine a Dickens novel with a lot more explicit sex, exploitation and venereal disease, and you start to get the idea.
That said, this is also a terrifically engaging production. If you are not put off by the seediness of the material, there’s plenty to enjoy here (even if “enjoy” isn’t quite the right word). The performances are consistently excellent; the camera work and mise-en-scène is powerful and stylish; and the plot packs enough twists to keep you guessing.
The prostitute Sugar is the center of the story, as she becomes involved with a wealthy soap manufacturer named William Rackham (Rackham’s business is just one of the many ironies sprinkled throughout the story). Rackham is married but his wife is mentally unstable, so his deepening involvement with Sugar perversely mirrors the deterioration of his wife’s mental state. That mental state is helped not one jot by the creepy Dr. Curlew, who diagnoses her in a way that only exacerbates her symptoms. (Hint: the doc prefers a hands-on approach.)
The first couple of episodes are devoted to table-setting and the establishment of character, which essentially involves seeing everyone behaving badly. Events ramp up a good deal in the final two episodes, when Sugar’s involvement with Rackham takes an unexpected turn, binding them even more closely while, paradoxically, serving to estrange them. And then, as you might expect, everything kind of goes to hell even more than it already has. The conclusion is satsfying without being pat, though some viewers might find it a touch ambiguous for their tastes.
As mentioned, the performances are excellent. Romola Garai turns in a terrific performance as Sugar, a woman who is both a calculating operator and a desperate victim of circumstance yearning for a better life. She is not entirely devoid of gentleness, but the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold trope is neatly avoided, and Garai gets some of the credit (along with Faber and the screenwriters). Garai’s face is capable of showing the gamut of emotion from vulnerability and need to stony determination, and she conveys all this without overacting or phony drama.
Chris O’Dowd is equally skilled as Rackham, while Richard E Grant makes for a nicely creepy Dr. Curlew. Special mention must also be made of Amanda Hale, who plays Rackham’s wife Agnes. Conveying madness is never easy, and Hale does it well, her collection of mannerisms and tics adding up incrementally into something genuinely unnerving. The supporting cast is equally good, particularly Rackham’s boorish upper-class buddies and Sugar’s lower-caste companions.
Director Marc Munden favors skewed camera angles, extreme close-ups and off-center framing to lend an air of queasy disorientation to the proceedings, an ambience that is perfectly suited to the subject matter. Colors are garish, with bright red cropping up often—in dresses, carpeting, lipstick, and of course blood. Shadows are also prominent, and good use is made of mist, candlelight, watery morning sunshine and other lighting effects. All these elements create a certain mood, and that mood—stop me if I’ve said this already—is overwhelmingly dour.
Extras on the DVD set are fairly slim. There are interviews with Garai, O’Dowd and Munden that amount to about 20 minutes, and ten minutes’ worth of deleted scenes; but really the series itself is the point here. Sound and picture quality on the two-disc DVD set are both excellent, as you would expect.
Faber’s massive book—over 900 pages—kick-started something of a trend in British fiction, and other writers soon followed suit, such as Sarah Waters with Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, or Jane Harris with The Observations. Such books have been nicknamed “Vic lit” and tend to feature a blend of historical accuracy, plenty of sex and seediness, and quick-thinking female protagonists. It remains to be seen whether any of those other books get transferred to the screen, but given the successful treatment of this particular offering, it’s a good bet that some will. Any that do will have to work hard to match the stylish verve of this series, however.