Marc Munden (director)
Network on Air (studio)
240min approx (length)
16 April 2018 (released)
09 May 2018
Originally broadcast in 2011 by the almighty BBC, this four-part miniseries is an adaptation of Michael Faber’s epic novel of the same name. The story’s heroine Sugar, a young Victorian prostitute, is vividly brought to life by Romola Garai while comedian Chris O’Dowd (in his first serious role) excels as the pompous and bumbling heir to a perfume empire who initially falls for her.
The rather odd title of the novel and of course this mini-series is taken from a sonnet poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson: “Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white.” However, it is the last line of the fifth stanza which provides a possible clue as to why the novel took it’s name from the poem: “Now folds the lily all her sweetness up, and slips into the bosom of the lake. So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip into my bosom and be lost in me.”
In Victorian London of the mid-19th century (the series was actually filmed in Kent and Liverpool) William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd) is the reluctant heir to a thriving perfume and soap business though what he really longs to be is to become a successful writer. As things stand, he doesn’t fall short of enthusiasm but of talent and thus makes next to no progress as far as his creative ambitions are concerned. To make matters worse, his father has cut his allowance until William comes to his senses and begins work in the family business in earnest – not least because he has daughter Sophie (Isla Watt) and his mentally disturbed wife Agnes (Amanda Hale) to support… not to mention a grand house in which the family lives! Reluctantly William pretends to show interest but at night he carouses with friends in the dockyard area and visits ‘dens of iniquity’. A friend points him in the direction of Sugar (Romola Garai), a young but unusually intelligent (for her class and background) prostitute in the employ of Mrs. Castaway’s (Gillian Anderson) brothel – though later on it surfaces that Mrs. Castaway is in fact Sugar’s mother. Both William and Sugar feel immediately attracted to each other not just from a client/prostitute perspective but because Sugar has literary ambitions of her own. In fact she is rather well read though her writing is of a different nature… using pen and ink to exact revenge on the male species in general and her clients in particular. Cue for some hallucinatory and violent scenes. Soon though a bond, strengthened by mutual respect, forms between William and Sugar, who suffers from extreme eczema and psoriasis which she tends to with a special salve made from bear fat.
Meanwhile back in the Rackham household, Agnes’ madness deteriorates further and Dr. Curlew (Richard E. Grant) – the Rackham’s longstanding physician – presses William into signing a paper that will put Agnes into an asylum “where she would receive proper care”. William steadfastly refuses. Unlike in the novel, where it is explained that Agnes’ apparent madness stems from sexual repression and utter cluelessness in all things concerning the body (she thinks her menstruations are caused by demons) the film never makes it quite clear what causes her descent into mental illness. Agnes also fails to acknowledge the existence of her daughter Sophie. At the other end of the spectrum William’s younger brother Henry (Mark Gatiss – where would the BBC be without him?) entertains hopes of getting romantically involved with the widowed Mrs. Emmeline Fox (Shirley Henderson) – a lady who made it her cause to rescue ‘fallen women’ but who suffers from severe consumption. Her fragile condition and the fact that Henry has aspirations to one day become a clergyman has, ultimately, fatal consequences for him. With all this going on it’s little wonder that William decides to have Sugar all to himself by secretly moving her into a flat of her own though at first he has to buy her off from Mrs. Castaway, contributing further to his debts. Sugar’s flat comes with the condition that William has access to the premise (and to Sugar’s body) whenever he pleases, cue for some randy sex scenes though nowhere as graphic as in the novel, obviously.
With Agnes’ further deteriorating but William still refusing to sign papers to lock her away in an asylum he then decides to install Sugar in his home under the pretence of a governess for young Sophie and soon the little girl and Sugar bond as if they were mother and daughter. With the help of Sugar’s clever business mind William’s business – but also his talent as a writer – begin to prosper. Nonetheless, Sugar always maintained a sense of fairness towards her own sex and when she realises that Dr. Curlew sexually abuses his patient Agnes she takes pity on the poor woman who sees some sort of Guardian Angel in Sugar who has come to rescue her. And indeed that’s precisely what Sugar does shortly before Agnes is supposed to finally taken to an asylum – she helps the confused woman escape. Weeks later the badly decomposed remains of a woman are washed ashore and due to some of the long blond hair remaining it is assumed the body is that of Agnes who, in a fit of madness, drowned herself. Only Sugar knows the corpse cannot be Agnes because shortly before her escape she cut her hair short, however, Sugar decides to remain silent on the matter. Wracked with guilt over having failed Agnes as a husband William’s feelings for Sugar cool down rapidly – forgotten are the hours of passion and all her devotion of help. Instead he sets his eyes on snooty Lady Constance Bridgelow, an acquaintance who returns his affections and who would without doubt further his much-needed climb up the social ladder. Things reach an ugly climax when William find out that Sugar had been pregnant and – realizing his feelings for her cooled down – aborted the baby. He send her packing and orders her to leave but by now Sugar has had enough and decides it’s high time to turn the table… her act of revenge will bereave William of everything once dear to him…
THE CRIMSON PETAL… is magnificent to look at, with the upper classes surrounded by opulence and the lower and unfortunate classes by sheer squalor – you can imagine the stench coming from those quarters infested with pox-ridden beggars and doxies begging for farthings. That said, judging by Mrs. Castaway’s sumptuous clothes she does seem to do well with her brothel and oh my – did they really have Crazy Colour in Victorian times to give Gillian Anderson individual bright red strands of hair woven into her blond mane? Romola Garais’ fabulous costumes can be explained as client cum lover William likes to shower her with dresses and gifts, in fact there is one rather hilarious scene when William hands out Christmas presents to his female domestic staff: everyone gets a skimpy bar of perfumed soap from his factory but Sugar receives the works of Shakespeare (bound in leather)! It goes without saying that over 800 pages cannot be pressed into a four-hour film adaptation but instead of comparing things with the book one should simply look at this excellent TV-drama from an independent point of view. The performances too are top notch and the on-screen chemistry between Garai and O’Dowd makes the entire affair all the more believable.