Adapted from Michel Faber’s 2002 novel of the same name, the British miniseries “The Crimson Petal and the White” (airing on Encore tonight, September 10th, at 8pm and tomorrow at the same time) features characters in the grip of Victorian repression but is itself gleefully earthy and not prone to being prim. There’s isn’t much of a place for shyness in a story in which the main character is a clever, pragmatic, literary prostitute named Sugar (Romola Garai).
Directed by Marc Munden and written by Lucinda Coxon, “The Crimson Petal and the White” is set in a version of 1864 London that’s anything but romanticized — a point the program at first drives in firmly, a little too much so in an introduction in which Sugar says of her world that “you imagine from other stories you read that you know it well,” but assures us that we don’t. Trudging through the mud and into a house in which women lounge in the nude and piss in pots out in the open, Sugar brings us into the story by paying a visit to a friend who is dying, and who murmurs “they’ll toss me in the river, eels will eat out my eyes — no one will know I ever lived.”
Being forgotten is primarily a female concern in “The Crimson Petal in the White,” which plays on terms of propriety and authorship and notes the way that its women, highborn and low, are given little leeway to speak their mind, much less act on it. Being heard is far less existential a concern for William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd), the heir to a perfume fortune who starts off insisting to a father uninclined to indulge him that he has no interest in the family business because his true calling is as a writer.
Like almost all of the male characters in the narrative, William is portrayed as unaware of his privilege, an unthinking oppressor whose cruelty isn’t calculated but comes from holding all the cards. With a wife, Agnes (Amanda Hale), struggling with mental illness and kept a kind of hostage by her own fears and the demands of a doctor (Richard E. Grant) who insists she not excite herself and that her “womb has moved,” William is in need of on outside outlet, and falls for Sugar, whose physical charms, knowledge of poetry and ease with flattery give him the confidence he needs to take charge of his household and secure her exclusively as his mistress.
The most interesting aspect of “The Crimson Petal and the White” is its look — the woozy cinematography by Lol Crawley gives the feeling the story’s being seen through the haze of either a consumptive fever or a low-grade drunkenness, reeling through the streets and lurching into close-ups, it adds to the alien feel of this landscape. It’s 50 years shy of the burnished “Downton Abbey,” but feels a million miles away in terms of approach.
The camera lingers on the imperfect bared flesh of its characters, who are all pasty and look a little ill, taking in dangling genitals and hairy armpits — no parade of corsets, this — and frequently closes in on Garai’s face as Sugar is in the embrace of her lover, as it goes calculating or blank as soon as he’s unable to see it.
Sugar’s been offered up for sale all her life, since Mrs. Castaway (a vamping Gillian Anderson), the madam of her establishment with who she shares more than history, introduced her into the trade at age 13. She’s had no choice, but takes a pretense of control in her writing, in stories in which she images herself taking bloody revenge on the men in her life. The broadside dismissal of those men in “The Crimson Petal and the White” is startling and sometimes off-putting, given the larger-than-life nature of the story’s protagonist and the superhuman sense of sisterhood she’s allowed, but its parallels of Agnes and Sugar are interesting, both representing and breaking past the Madonna-whore division they represent.
Sugar all cultivated sensuality and Agnes so out of touch with her body her monthly period is a mysterious and vexing thing to her, something she suspects is related to eating — “if I don’t eat, I don’t bleed,” she observes. And yet they’re able to help and relate to each other more than the man they share. Both Garai and Hale are very strong in their roles as women whose lives are dramatically curtailed, but it’s O’Dowd’s performance that’s the surprising stand-out, because it’s so fearlessly dislikable while being open and vulnerable. William is a creature of his era, oblivious to the women in his life until it’s too late, seeing them only as they exist to prop him up. He has no conception of the world they occupy, one this ambitious period drama draws out in intriguing if uneven ways.