London, England in the 19th Century was a city of contrasts. In the well to do areas, the world looked to be a beautiful place with wide tree-lined avenues for people to stroll along. Yet travel only a few miles across town and you’d find slums crammed full of people and streets so filthy and dingy you’d wonder how anything could live. Instead of wide open spaces full of light and air, the tenements crowding the streets blocked out the sky and human and animal waste were piled in the streets. Here, living was a desperate struggle for survival as men and women fought for whatever scraps of food and money they could lay their hands on.
For a young woman, the easiest way to make a living was to sell her body. For the affluent men of the time, the seedy side of Victorian life was an adventure. A place where they could throw off the constraints society forced upon them and pretend to be free. There were even books published for the discerning gentleman informing them of places and people of interest. This is the world we are drawn into in The Crimson Petal and the White being released on DVD September 25 2012 by Acorn Media Group.
We are introduced to the two worlds and their point of intersection by the lead characters in the mini series; Sugar, (Romola Garai) a much sought after prostitute and William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd) the upper middle class son of a soap manufacturer who thinks of himself as a poet. When Rackham is cut off by his father for refusing to work in the family business he seeks solace in the arms of Sugar. Her name is much bandied about by men of his acquaintance and she even has her own listing in one of those above mentioned books for discerning gentlemen..
Rackham quickly becomes obsessed with Sugar and she, seeing him as a potential way out of her life as a prostitute, encourages his interest. He uses her as a means to escape his reality of impending poverty and a wife (Amanda Hale) Agnes Rackham, who suffers from a type of mental illness. In order for him to be of use to her Sugar first must find a way to save Rackham from himself. Through a combination of flattery and encouragement she manages to convince him that he won’t be untrue to his “poetic” temperament by working for his father. Soon, not only has he won himself back into his father’s good graces, but he’s become instrumental in breathing fresh life into the family business. Of course his father would probably be shocked and appalled if he were to find out the majority of the his ideas – including the complete redesign of the company’s catalogue – are the work of a prostitute.
With Sugar becoming indispensable, Rackham first establishes her as his mistress in her own apartment by purchasing her from her madame, Mrs Castaway (Gillian Anderson) and eventually moves her into his house to become his daughter’s governess. As his mistress Sugar is living the life she always dreamed of, out of the slums and in her own apartment in a lovely part of the city. However, when she’s moved into his house as governess, she’s all of a sudden reduced in status again to someone of little importance. For not only must she know her place as a servant, Rackham starts to take her for granted, forgetting how much she’d been responsible for his prosperity. She also see first hand that he will never leave his wife for her, no matter how ill she becomes or how much Sugar does for him.
While a bare bones plot outline might make the story sound like some sort of Dickens era soap opera its far more sophisticated and intelligent than not only any soap opera you’ve seen, but the majority of what you’ll see on television these days. From the technical side of the production through the script to the acting, this mini series is special. The first thing you’ll notice is the almost surreal way the seamy side of London is depicted. We walk through streets that are universally grey and claustrophobic. Everywhere the camera looks we see people in various states of desperation. The narrow and dirty streets crammed with dirty tenements are filled with beggars, prostitutes, drunks and those who just seem like they’ve nowhere else to go.
Sugar is the only flash of colour in this dingy prison, and as we see the world through her eyes, we begin to understand her desperation to escape. The first time Rackham follows her back to her room at Castaway’s brothel, she seems to float in front of him. The camera work creates an almost surreal effect by reducing everything around her to a blurry soft focus and exaggerating both the colours and flow of her costume. Through the camera, Rackham’s eyes, we see her as some sort of exotic bird with tail feathers enticing us ever onward. Ignoring the filth around him he sees only the promise Sugar represents. The irony is that while Rackham sees Sugar the prostitute as the means by which he can escape the repressiveness of Victorian society and its middle class values, she sees in him her chance for a life of safe respectability.
While the performances of all those involved in the production are wonderful, Anderson is almost unrecognizable as Sugar’s Madam Mrs.Castaway, O’Dowd as Rackham, Garai as Sugar and Hale as Mrs. Rackham are superlative. O’Dowd, probably best known to most as the policeman boy friend in the movie Bridesmaids, is a revelation in a serious role. He somehow manages to convey his need for what Sugar has to offer him while simultaneously being sincere in his expressions of love for his wife. For Sugar, who has pinned all her hopes on him rescuing her from a life of poverty, finding out the depth of his affection for his wife is quite the blow to her ambitions. However, she also finds herself thrust into the role of Mrs. Rackham’s protector and does her best to help her.