TV miniseries review: The Crimson Petal and the White (2010), directed by Marc Munden
Weren’t the BBC going to scale back on the costume dramas? And then they go and make Women in Love and a bunch of other non-modern day adaptations, including this: a gritty story set in Victorian London.
The Crimson Petal and the White is based on a novel by Michel Faber, and it follows a young woman called Sugar (Romola Garai). She’s a prostitute and even though she lives together with Mrs Castaway (Gillian Anderson in hideous makeup), she teaches herself to read and write and has ambitions of a life a little more noble than the squalor she’s currently in.
Along comes William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd), who is trying to fit into his father’s soap emporium but isn’t doing well. Then he meets Sugar and his life changes. Suddenly he takes an interest in business, and even manages to set Sugar up as his exclusive – his mistress. Because yes, he’s married to Agnes (Amanda Hale), a woman who could give Bertha Mason a run for her money, except the pathology is different. Bertha is acting out, Agnes is mostly harmless, in her own little world where everything’s peachy. When she happens to see Sugar out in the street, she starts believing Sugar is her guardian angel, come to take her to a better place.
The physician on call for whenever Agnes takes a turn for the worst is Dr Curlew (Richard E Grant), who knows how to deal with hysterical women. He has a sister (Shirley Henderson) who works within the Rescue Society, helping prostitutes reform their lives. Enter subplot of attraction to William Rackham’s brother (Mark Gatiss), and the complications of being very ill with consumption. Didn’t feel like the subplot added a lot to the story, as it was only there as a parenthesis and nothing more.
Anyway. The story of Sugar and William Rackham is surprising. It begins as an obsession, an infatuation. It deepens into actual love, or so it seems, and then the fourth and final episode comes along and hits you in the face, turning everything upside down. I won’t say how or why, just that shit definitely happens.
Romola Garai is someone I’ve seen in a number of roles and always enjoy – even if her characters sometimes leave a bit to be desired (Emma Woodhouse and Angel Deverell to name a couple). Sugar is different. She’s trying to write a novel about her life and how it turned out the way it did, and has vivid fantasies of murdering the men she feels are responsible for her present occupation. Perhaps she should be more concerned about mother dearest, which brings me on to the subject of Gillian Anderson. WOW! Smack lots of horrid makeup on her and it turns the beautiful Agent Scully into the Wicked Witch of the West End! She’s been in a few different costume dramas and other things since The X-Files concluded, but I’ve not seen any of them for more than a few minutes. As Mrs Castaway her role wasn’t big, but she sparkled. What a treat!
The weirdest part was that of William Rackham, purely because the only things I remember seeing Chris O’Dowd in are a) The IT Crowd and b) Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel. Do I even have to point out how similar his roles in the two titles are? He’s the Awkward Irish Nerd. Here, he’s in a serious role, and it takes some getting used to. Mind you, I think he does it rather well, as it happens, but there’s still a “Don’t google the question, Moss!” lurking at the back of my mind wanting to jump out. I had no desire whatsoever to see the man’s penis on display, but umm, good luck trying to forget having seen that next time you see Roy answering the phone with “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”
I could point out some similarities with Jane Eyre as well, even though they’re classed as quite far-fetched. Sugar becomes a governess to an eight-year-old girl. She’s not French (nor illegitimate) but she is called Sophie, like Adèle’s nurse. There’s also a mad wife. And Sugar’s beginnings were indeed very humble, and Rackham’s less so. Still, the two novels don’t feel like they have any real connection with one another. It’s all in my head.
The way Sugar takes care of Sophie warms my heart. The poor girl has finally someone to be a mother to her rather than just a strict enforcer of rules and “no fun”. It might be considered wrong, what Sugar decided to do with the girl (and the mother, realistically), but at the same time, I can’t blame her. She did the right thing.
The Crimson Petal and the White is not a polite Jane Austen story, and it makes the Brontës look perfectly restrained. It shows life in the 19th Century London slums in the harsh light of reality rather than in a romanticised way. It’s grim, it’s gritty, it’s dirty – no, filthy – but at the same time colourful, and with equal measures of hope and despair. People have sex, they go to the loo, they have rashes and create chemical concoctions to induce miscarriages … It really isn’t pretty (except for the wonderful clothes and lush scenography) … but it’s something I had to see all four episodes of, like a book you can’t put down.
4 out of 5 street urchins.