Recently released on DVD by Acorn Media, The Crimson Petal and the White is a tale of love, betrayal, and insanity. Set in Victorian England, it’s a character-driven drama with an impressive cast, playing out as a heartbreaking miniseries.
William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids, The IT Crowd) is heir to a perfume company, but would rather be a writer. Saddled with a father (Tom Georgeson, Bleak House) who wants William to face reality and give up on his dreams, and a wife, Agnes (Amanda Hale, Bright Star), so mentally unbalanced that she doesn’t even recognize the existence of her own young daughter, Sophie (Isla Watt), William finds nothing but misery. That is, until he meets Sugar (Romola Garai, The Hour).
Sugar is a prostitute. But she, too, wants more than she has in life, working on her own novel, inspired by an equally miserable existence. Sugar is all too willing to become monogamous for William in exchange for money and a decent place to live, eventually becoming nanny and mother to Sophie. It’s a position that badly needs filled, so that Sugar is less an interloper, and more a savior, to the family, deranged Agnes even believing her to be a guardian angel.
But emotions and motivations are complicated. Those who indulge their dreams often are flighty, never satisfied when they get what the want. William is controlling and Sugar is ambitious, not subservient. This is the makings of a clash, one highly entertaining in this psychological thriller.
One thing for which The Crimson Petal and the White has been routinely praised is its cast. Besides O’Dowd and Garai, who do an absolutely stupendous job in the leading roles, Hale is perfect as a madwoman, Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) is delightfully monstrous, and Richard E. Grant (The Iron Lady) brings to his character new levels of creepiness.
Visually, The Crimson Petal and the White succeeds well. It perfectly builds a specific world for which these characters to dwell, the setting every bit a part of the people in it as anything else. Costume and makeup design are also top notch, really selling the story well. There is a dark quality the world, and the people inhabiting it.
The one complaint raised by those who have read the book upon which this miniseries is based is that some of the material has been toned down. True, there is only so much nudity most television channels can show, and the violence can’t really be R rated. Still, creating a masterful tone helps sell the story anyway, making these complaints insignificant when weighed against the other factors.
Sadly, the bonus features are lacking. Eleven minutes of deleted scenes, some character biographies, and interviews with a couple of the cast and crew is all you get. Yes, the discussions provide some meaningful insight, but mostly these aren’t anything memorable, nor entirely necessary. More might have been included.
Overall, though, the story of The Crimson Petal and the White is well worth your time, no matter what omissions may have been made in crafting the extras. This is a wholly original, brilliantly executed drama that will delight, surprise, and creep you out, sometimes all at the same time.
The Crimson Petal and the White is available now on a two-disc DVD from Acorn Media.