The Crimson Petal and the White directed by Marc Munden with screenplay adaptation by Lucinda Coxon is a four-part, award-winning BBC TV mini series that aired in 2011. It is now being offered on ACORN TV. The production is based on Michel Faber’s intriguing and masterful novel published in 2002 whose title is from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal. The title of the novel/ film is taken from the first line of Tennyson’s poem, “Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white.”
The symbolism of the crimson petal and the white refers to many concepts in the story which takes place in 1870s London and focuses on the culture’s divisive paternalism and classism as particularly noxious evils. This was Victorian England. London was its apotheosis of extremes, exemplifying the hypocritical, schizoid, uptight female, and perversely hedonistic male Victorians of the middle and upper classes, and the shameful existence of the equally paternalistic, hypocritical servant and impoverished lower class Victorians who allowed the rich to prey on them and exploit them for a meager, tawdry, dependent nonexistence.
Into this roiling and dynamic tale of two Londons comes the 19-year-old heroine and protagonist, Sugar (an absolutely incredible, brilliant performance by Romola Garai) a forward thinking, ambitious and highly literate prostitute. Sugar meets up with the sometime protagonist/antagonist William Rackham, (a believable, endearing, cowardly, vulnerable Chris O’Dowd) the son of a wealthy perfume merchant and potential heir to his father’s fortune. Sugar is not only enterprising in her sexual talents, she is ingenious in having branded herself the finest and most beautiful prostitute money can buy. She is cleverly selective and she is fairly autonomous, having set up “shop” (living quarters) with Mrs. Castaway (the always amazing and interesting Gillian Anderson) with whom she has a unique relationship, more mother-daughter than madam-whore.
Faber and Coxon tweak the “whore with the heart of gold” theme and set it on its head with tremendous irony. Sugar may look and act like a white-petaled Madonna, but her heart is filled with a darkness reminiscent of the dank, unseemly and coal filth streets where she was raised. The hypocritical, loathsome culture has taught her to hide her dark desires and empower herself through her writing which gives vent to her deepest most ghoulish expressions. This is the way she has not only survived, but thrived, rising to the top of her profession. In her writing she is her own woman.
Sugar’s sexual knowledge, red “lust and passion” coupled with her literary intelligence entrances William Rackham who is the typical misunderstood, sexually neglected and miserable husband with the seemingly “hysterical,” uber sheltered and weak-willed wife (a tragic, fragile, pitiable, believable Amanda Hale) at home. During the course of their encounters, Sugar sweetly lifts up William’s ego. She encourages him to embrace his good fortune in the perfume business which he despises. With her writing, she helps him promote product and he turns around his attitude, becoming successful and respected by his father who is so pleased, he gladly makes him his heir. On the home front, his wife, frightened by the truly haunting and negatively prophetic doctor (a scary Richard E. Grant), grows more hysterical and apparently delusional.
By degrees, William’s love and appreciation for Sugar’s sexual and emotional help manifests into greater financial assistance. Sugar continues to subtly connive William to the point where he helps her transcend her class by taking her from her squalid surroundings and Mrs. Castaway’s care He makes her an independent, autonomous woman with her own apartments. However, the fact remains that though he now pays for her beautiful clothes and her apartment and food, she is still his whore. The subtle theme whispers and rustles as we note there is a pang of remorse when Sugar leaves Mrs. Castaway and her friends and it isn’t that she is leaving familiar surroundings. Though she has left the squalor, she is has become more spiritually and soulfully impoverished because in accepting his definition of autonomy she has lost her own. In surrendering to William’s living space and complete care, she is wholly his and has become his creature and his creation. She is no longer her own person, though she has manipulated him to this end. Commensurately, her writings have become less frequent, her expression has weakened.
This fact is subtly woven in and the hypocrisy of the economics of marriage and sexual relationships is set up front and center in a culture that makes wealthy white men preeminent in business, in a free lifestyle, in pleasure, in government, in power, in short, in all aspects of existence, while women from the wealthy to the under classes are relegated to the position of extinct appendages of male identity. And like an appendix when it gets infected, it is cut out. This is especially so in the role of wives exemplified by William Rackham’s Agnes whose attempt at independence is seen as madness; the more she struggles to free herself, the more imprisoned and hysterical she appears to become.
As Sugar and William become closer, they appear to care for one another and he becomes more successful. The plot complications related to his brother, his wife’s decline and Sugar’s dubious complicity in it, and Sugar’s continued rise in social status intensify. The resolution of their relationship has been sown in the dynamics of their coupling early on, if one is carefully watching. The final two episodes of the series remain surprising and engaging, doubling back on the thematic lines for emphasis and reinforcement. You will be engrossed to the end and the human drama is so captivating, you will wish the series would continue.
First, this is because the initial source material is solidly written and conceived. Coxon’s adapted screenplay has done justice to Faber’s enlightening and always fascinating work..Secondly, the cinematic elements, the use of camera, shot composition, choice of close-ups, editing, the art design, costumes, set design create the realism of the settings and especially the atmosphere of London squalor and London splendor.
The director has cleverly made London into two dichotomous characters. One is the London of the poor: the gritty, gruesome dripping, dark, dank streets, the squalid, tattered, soiled living quarters. Contrasting the horror of the gnawing rats of poverty is the peace and plenty of the immaculate, white, well-lighted resplendent and beauteous gardens, mansions and home interiors of the merchant and upper classes. In this fascinating period film London’s two distinct and unique characters play upon one another; they drive the action and are the foundation for the characters and themes.
It is in the slimy black, broken down cobblestone streets, shacks and threatening, scary alleyways where Sugar learned to sell her wares and evolve her ambition. Walking there with friends, William learns of her hot reputation as highly desirable. From there he “rescues” her and brings her to the sterility of another nonexistence, equally malevolent, but in a vastly different way. The film makes clear that no woman can thrive in either, and it is why the conclusion is both satisfying and nerve-wracking. Without these two Londons so beautifully conceived and atmospherically executed, the TV series’ greatness would have been lost.