The Crimson Petal And The White debuts tonight on Encore at 8 p.m. Eastern.
It may be too early to tell whether it’s a coincidence, a trend, or the working out of a metaphor for our times that will come to seem really obvious in a few years, but the fact remains that an awful lot of ambitious TV these days carries the message: If you finish that time machine you’re building in your basement, don’t go to the late 1800s. Based on Michel Faber’s 2002 novel of the same name, The Crimson Petal And The White opens in London in 1874: Dickens territory. Like the book, the miniseries takes Dickens’ rage at the misery caused by poverty and economic and social injustice and gives it a feminist twist. Romola Garai plays the heroine, Sugar, who is especially well-suited to understand the ways that financial status shapes sexual relations, and vice versa. Born in a brothel, Sugar is 19 when the series begins, and has been on the job herself for six years. Through steady toil and careful study of her clients, she has turned herself into a legendary whore, someone whose name is traded and bandied about, in awestruck whispers, among wealthy, slumming gentlemen.
Sugar is also an artist. In the opening sequence, which sets the near-hallucinatory tone of high-pitched urban nightmare, she marches through dirty streets filled with suffering humanity while someone tortures a cello on the soundtrack. She makes her way through rooms filled with naked women squatting over chamber pots or lolling in messy beds to comfort a prostitute who’s been beaten to a bloody pulp. Sugar tells the woman she’ll be all right, but her friend isn’t having it: “Tomorrow, I’ll be cold meat.” Sugar promises her that she’ll avenge her death, but this isn’t the setup for a Dickensian Ms. 45: She means that she’ll immortalize her in the epic book she’s been writing. Another of Sugar’s colleagues, played by Liz White, makes the mistake of referring to Sugar’s writing as if it were a lark that might possibly conclude with a “miraculous rescue” or some other happy ending, and is brusquely corrected: “It’s a book of hate,” Sugar tells her. “To wreak revenge on every pompous, trembling worm that knocks on Mrs. Castaway’s door.”
Applying for the role of chief worm in Sugar’s life is William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd), a moneyed fool who fancies himself an enlightened, progressive-minded fellow and who wants to be a writer, though his greatest accomplishment in that direction has been to get a haircut that’s meant to make him look like Matthew Arnold. (“I’m rather pleased that it doesn’t,” he confesses. “I actually think his latest work to be overrated.”) Rackham’s literary pretensions annoy his father (Tom Georgeson) and threaten his position as heir to the family perfume business. Luckily, after hearing his friends sing Sugar’s praises, he tracks her down and is immediately dumbfounded when he learns that not only is she beautiful, but that she has read and formed opinions on Arnold and John Ruskin (“Spare me his poetry. In verse, he’s a major minor”) and can quote James Thomson’s “City Of Dreadful Night,” with its rejection of God and longing for “The grave’s most holy peace.” Sugar reels him in so expertly that, when he finally admits that he was less than honest when he suggested that he was a professional writer—“Writing is not my sole occupation”—she’s able to turn even that into a compliment. “Why would a man with your unquenchable curiosity, your renaissance grasp of the world and its wonders, limit himself to just one sphere?”
Sugar sets about convincing Rackham that she’s invaluable to him, and she is: Not only do they roll around in bed together, she stiffens his spine and compels him to focus on the family business instead of his nonexistent writing career. (He, meanwhile, never suspects that she has a manuscript she’s working on somewhere. Looking at the ink smudges on her hands, he reminds her that he’s paying her well enough that she doesn’t need to take in copy work.) The heart of the story is this sexual relationship that has no love in it, though both parties pretend there is, for the sake of the man’s feelings and self-image. From her first glimpse of Rackham, Sugar sizes him up as a harmless fool, and the only thing that changes is that, when she gets close enough to perceive the full cruelty of the treatment of his neurasthenic, bedridden wife, Agnes (Amanda Hale), she realizes that he’s actually a harmful fool. Given the heartlessness of their arrangement, it’s a tribute to the actors that their scenes together are at all watchable. In fact, thanks to the performances, the show is quite compelling.
It’s been clear from Garai’s performances in Atonement and the TV miniseries The Hour and Emma that she’s a charming, talented actress, but her work here takes the actress to a whole other dimension in terms of daring. Being sold to men has burned out Sugar’s capacity for romantic love, and she’s all manipulation, at least in her dealings with adult males. She’s hard to like, but Garai demands respect for her, and she wins it with her constant, watchful manner. Sugar is always taking in everything going on around her, and redeeming the squalor of her life by learning from it and turning it into material; either in bed or on a blank sheet of paper, she’ll make use of it somehow. As for O’Dowd, his role might seem a stretch for the star of The IT Crowd, but he puts his light-comedian’s skills to good, subversive use here. He looks at Sugar with the same expression of inexpressive, cow-eyed desire that he directed at Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, but then he makes the mistake of expressing himself, and the illusion that there’s anything in his romantic poses but shallow narcissism dissipates into thin air. Yet he retains his surface likability, even when he’s saying things like, “As if a child of 8 needs schooling. And a girl, too!” The monster emerges gradually, so you don’t sit there wondering why anyone would have ever put up with him for a minute. (O’Dowd also ages convincingly. The funny thing is, he seems to age 10 years in the course of the show, but it doesn’t seem as if the story takes place over that great a stretch of time, and in fact, nobody else ages at all. Maybe this is meant to show how quickly middle-aged rot sets in when a man like this gives up his youthful dreams of not becoming his father, or maybe the makeup man couldn’t resist this one chance to show off.)
The Crimson Petal And The White—the title is from Tennyson—has high ambitions that it doesn’t always live up to. Much of the dialogue is on-the-nose in a flashy, isn’t-it-ironic way. (Sugar is only able to help her class better, Agnes, by allowing the poor, half-mad woman to take her for an angel, and urges her not to tell anyone they’ve met: “Creatures like me aren’t meant to interfere in your world.”) And the director, Marc Munden, can’t find the right tone for the over-the-top subplot involving Rackham’s brother, who wants to become a minister. He can’t understand the strong feelings he has for his friend, the widowed, consumptive Mrs. Fox (Shirley Henderson) who is annoying the other ladies of her social circle with her solicitous concern for the plight of prostitutes. (Richard E. Grant, who plays a doctor, sums up this part of the series and a few other parts besides when he barks at Rackham, “My God! What’s wrong with the men in your family!?”)
The Crimson Petal And The White could just seem like an extended rant about the evils of having lived 140 years ago, if it weren’t so well-acted by the leads, and by a small army of actors reveling in the gallery of small, standout roles that make every actual Dickens adaptation a small event. Hale is superb, White brightens up every frame she’s in, and Gillian Anderson, who went out where the buses don’t run in the recent BBC version of Great Expectations, stayed out there long enough to play the madam Mrs. Castaway. She looks like a cross between the Bride of Frankenstein and a large, scary, red-velvet cake with a mean mouth on her. Informed that there was a dude named Jesus who died for our sins, Mrs. Castaway doesn’t miss a beat: “Evidently unsuccessfully,” she says in a Cockney trill, “since we’re all still paying.”