The Crimson Petal And The White is a new four-part BBC2 adaptation of the Michael Faber novel of the same name. It’s adapted by Lucinda Coxon and directed by Marc Munden. The first episode aired on Wednesday night, and while I can admit I’ve never read the book, the dramatisation has so far proved itself to be a deliciously mucky scamper through the underside of Victorian London. Both literally and figuratively.
There are precious few cosy middle-class parlours here. The first episode dives straight in with a beautifully shot, stylised run through the grot, mud and violence of London’s slums. It takes a certain amount of delight in slamming you directly in the face with some pretty unflinching visuals and I sort of suspect there hasn’t been quite this much sex in a costume drama since Alex Kingston bounced her way through Moll Flanders back in 1996.
The Radio Times describes it as ‘period drama for fans of David Lynch’ and to an extent they have a point. It is quite dazzlingly shot; all sharp angles, abrupt cuts and stark colours, both disconcerting and pleasantly creepy. There’s a simmering level of menace that slinks beneath the surface of it all as well, tangles of uncertain motivations and duplicity that centre around quite graphic sequences of revenge, lust and abuse. It doesn’t necessarily make for easy watching but it is definitely engaging and surprisingly hard to look away from.
The characters on the most part get precious little introduction but there’s a great deal to be said for the slow reveal. Layers peel back to expose the sanity in madness and the murderous intent beneath the sweet, and on the whole it’s an unexpectedly discomfiting viewing experience. The word ‘visceral’ is thrown around a lot in relation to programs of this nature but again it’s not a million miles away from the truth. Chunks of it genuinely are not pleasant. But prostitution in Victorian London usually wasn’t, and this adaptation doesn’t just embrace the disease and general nastiness, it quite frequently rolls around in it with great enthusiasm. Sort of like a dog in a cow-pat.
Oddly enough, that’s not a criticism. There is a tendency to sanitise history for literary purposes, it certainly doesn’t hurt for once to see it skew the other way. Just be prepared that parts of it genuinely are not going to appeal to those with less robust sensibilities.
Mention should be made of the cast, of course. Romola Garai (Emma) takes the role of the calculating prostitute Sugar, while a surprisingly adept Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd) plays the feckless would-be writer William Rackham. He’s a man transformed by Sugar’s attentions even as she harbours dark fantasies of her own, all while his wife Agnes withers under the unscrupulous attentions of horrendous quack, Doctor Curlew.
Richard E. Grant (Withnail And I) is flesh-creepingly nasty as the Doctor, and there is a real sense of cracking, brittle fragility from Amanda Hale as Agnes. But if that just simply wasn’t enough for you, Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter) and Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) make brief introductory appearances in this first episode, and it’s a real treat to see an utterly transformed Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as brothel-keeper, Mrs Castaway.
The plot may feel a little slow at the outset, but you get the feeling that things are only just beginning to take shape, and much bigger developments lurk on the horizon. I’m very much looking forward to the next three parts, and if your tolerance for genteel ladies making veiled observations in polite company is worn through, I can only suggest this as a very thorough antidote.