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."
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 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.