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.
Lest you get the impression Sugar is the cliched “hooker with the heart of gold”, it only takes remembering how carefully Garai’s character orchestrated everything to make herself indispensable to Rackham. However, we do see that while she doesn’t have much respect for her clients, in fact she dreams of taking murderous revenge on most of them, including Rackham, we also see her compassion for those who she sees as being mistreated by the world. In her relationship with Mrs. Rackham, Garai does a remarkable job of being completely sincere in her feelings of pity for the other woman, while a part of her obviously would prefer if she were to just vanish. There is a blade of steel inside of her from having lived in the survival of the fittest streets of London, and while she may be sympathetic to others, we have the feeling that she’s not going to let anybody get in her way of her dream of a new life.
Of course she also recognizes the feelings of being caged that Mrs. Rackham suffers from as being identical to how she felt about her old life. However, as Hale so magnificently shows, Mrs. Rackham’s prison is caused by the pressures and expectations of society on her to behave in a certain manner. Hale manages to walk the line between overacting and playing somebody suffering from delusions and extreme nervousness wonderfully. It would have been easy to play this type of character as a single note, in a constant state of hysteria. However she makes her a far more believable character by showing us glimpses of the person she had been before she became afflicted by her illness. This is important because if we didn’t see anything redeemable in her, Rackham’s love for her wouldn’t have been believable.
In the bonus features included on the second of the two discs in this package, we hear from both the actors and the technical people about how they approached their job on this shoot. While nobody goes into tremendous detail, the production designers and cinematographer do explain the techniques they used and the effects they were trying to achieve. In their interviews both Garai and O’Dowd explain the approaches they took to try and humanize their characters. I would have liked to hear more of how O’Dowd, whose background is mainly comedy, might have changed his approach for this role from what he’s done in the past, but he just talked about how he tried to inject some humour into his character.
British television is no stranger to costume dramas set in the Victorian era, as there have probably been adaptations for the small screen of every Dickens novel ever written. However, The Crimson Petal and the White is unlike any other show set in this period. It goes deeper into the darkness that lay beneath the surface of the times including the effects sexual and emotional repression had on people. Through a combination of superlative acting, a great script, and inventive production techniques, these issues are brought to light through telling the story of the relationship between an ambitious prostitute and an upper middle class gentleman. Less a tale of star crossed lovers and more a story of what happens when world’s collide and the upheavals that ensue. While its not something to watch with the whole family, it can be quite graphic at times, its definitely not your typical costume drama, which makes it one of the most exciting television programs you’ll see in a long time.