Based on author Michel Faber’s best-selling romp of a novel, this lavish BBC Two adaptation presents Victorian London as a hellish, heady brew of filth, degraded innocence and hypocrisy.
Romola Garai (Atonement) plays prostitute-with-a-plan Sugar, our anti-heroine, who slowly eases her way into the life of rich businessman William Rackham (The IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd in a rare straight role). Both are excellent, with Garai perfectly striking a balance of malice and compassion as fallen woman Sugar and O’Dowd pulling off a career-best performance with the incredible feat of eliciting sympathy for the tawdry, pompous Rackham.
They lead a strong ensemble cast that includes Richard E. Grant, Gillian Anderson and Mark Gatiss, filling out the Dickensian landscape with characteristic vigour. We are led into a society where brothels house women struggling to survive as men like Rackham take their innocence and God slowly takes away everything else, as Anderson’s Mrs Castaway demonstrates, brutally tearing the blanket from a sleeping child.
Indeed, Dickens is an obvious reference point for Lucinda Coxon’s unrelentingly grim adaptation. Given a somehow bawdier, more gruesome edge, the sexual act one whore claims she has performed on Dickens himself perhaps could summarise this.
A less predictable reference is cult filmmaker David Lynch. Filmed with a lush mix of gaudy colours both entrancing and sickening, Marc Munders’ vivid direction is shot through with Lynch’s trademark hazy surrealism and subversion of the everyday. Munders’ world has every drop of horror wrung out with some striking sound design. Mournful strings grind and buzz like flies, lending sinister undertones to a nice countryside excursion and brash delirium to already smog-throttled city streets.
As Sugar slowly climbs the social ladder, more is revealed about Rackham’s wife (Amanda Hale), the white petal to her crimson and a woman a more traditional tale would depict as a simple rival for our calculating protagonist. Bitter irony comes into play as Sugar is mistaken for a guardian angel (perhaps an angel of death may be more appropriate) but shows compassion for her fellow wronged woman.
This contradiction is central to Faber’s story. Sugar is a woman driven by revenge but pushed into revealing a rare caring nature beneath the rage. The Crimson Petal And The White is a near-perfect love story, of sorts, told in an unrelentingly brutal, brilliant way. Unafraid of modern arty flourishes though thankfully not forgetting the importance of simple, heartwarming, yet heartbreaking, storytelling, this is cinematic period drama at its finest.
Released on DVD on Monday 6th June by Fremantle Home Entertainment.