As the BBC four part adaptation of Michael Faber’s fictional venture into late Victorian London The Crimson Petal and the White opens, we hear the voice of the heroine as bent over a desk as she is writing a novel. She is partially dressed, and she is shot from behind. We assume she’s a beauty, but we can see dry patches of skin and ugly blemishes. She is Sugar, a prostitute, and she is writing an erotic tale of revenge upon every man who put her there, to paraphrase a song.
It is a ferociously grim story set in London’s filthy alleys filled with poverty and disease. It is the London of Dickens’ dust piles and rivers hiding swimming corpses in Our Mutual Friend. It is the London of Bleak House where the very streets bring their plague to even those who can afford to live away from them. This could have been a Dickens novel but for two things. This is a story about a prostitute, and not some cliché, trampled upon lady of the evening, but an intelligent able woman besides. Then of course there’s the sex. Now if there’s one thing the BBC has been adept at doing, it is turning Dickens novels into small screen successes; Faber’s novel gives them a chance to do it once more, but this time with a large dose of sex and nudity. As usual they manage it with style.
The plot in some sense is a variation on the theme of the woman of ill repute with the heart of gold, she more sinned against than sinning, except not quite. Sugar (Romola Garai), a prostitute living in the brothel of her mother/madame (Gillian Anderson) is taken as a mistress by an ineffectual aspiring writer she has successfully encouraged to take a greater part in his family’s business (Chris O’Dowd). He has a wife (Amanda Hall) and child, but the young wife seems to be insane, although her problems are clearly related to sexual trauma as a result of the loss of virginity and childbirth. This is melodrama of the highest order as Sugar grows more and more involved in the family, until the inevitable chickens come home to roost.
The story makes an effective feminist critique against the treatment of women in Victorian England and by extension to women today as well. Using some of the familiar Victorian tropes, the mad woman in the attic (although in this case it’s the bedroom), the eternal governess, as well as the golden hearted tramp, it depicts the plight of many women during the period. There are nods to things like abortion and the somewhat feeble reform efforts. With a title taken from a song in Tennyson’s The Princess, a poem about the establishment of a woman’s society in which men are not welcome, this should not be surprising.
Performances are somewhat uneven. Garai’s Sugar is impressive, a strong competent woman who manages to be a sympathetic character even when she acts badly. Gillian Anderson as Mrs. Castaway seems modeled on Miss Havisham without the bridal ensemble. She makes an effective harpy. Amanda Hall is strong as the doll like wife unable to cope with the physical demands of marriage. Perhaps it has something to do with Bridesmaids, but I found it difficult to buy Chris O’Dowd as a Victorian gentleman, either as an effete aspiring writer at the beginning or as a successful businessman through most of the series. In an interview, director Marc Munden talks about how O’Dowd adds a comic element to the character which presumably was why he was cast. The problem is that it doesn’t really work.
The two disc DVD set now available from Acorn Media includes biographies of the characters on the first disc, and interviews and deleted scenes on the second.