‘The Crimson Petal And The White’: Episode 2 review

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After last week’s rather bouncy and luridly erotic first instalment of BBC Two’s four-part Victorian drama comes a more thoughtful and reflective episode, focusing on some of the other characters briefly met previously.

The second part of The Crimson Petal And The White pulls the brakes rather swiftly on all the trouser and corset-based fun and leaves our class-crossed lovers – Sugar (Emma‘s Romola Garai) and William Rackham (The IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd) – instead centring its attention on William’s emotionally and physically savaged wife Agnes and his brother Henry’s repressed relationship with Mrs Fox.

Agnes, played so heart-wrenchingly wistfully by Amanda Hale (Murderland), is more upbeat than when we last found her; here she is designing a dress for a function at the Royal Albert Hall. All seems well until she meets an equally distressed-looking acquaintance who has the answers to her problems.

Eyeing her friend’s scant body with barely concealed jealousy, and almost lustfully so, Agnes asks with deep admiration just how she looks so “good”. The answer, “water and green beans” fills her with delight and she notes it in her little book of ideas. As a further addition, Agnes is given some drugs to combat any side effects she will encounter through starvation.

This gives rise to a different kind of trip than we’re used to through drugs, all through her experiences. Her incapacity comes to head at the Royal Albert Hall where she flees after a contretemps and collapses on the street outside. And who comes to her aid? Her “angel” Sugar.

The bones of the story are beginning to take shape, with the relationship between the two women taking centre stage. Last week, she helped William and now it is his wife he receives her attention. Agnes’s eating disorder is just one aspect of health that is examined in The Crimson Petal And The White.

Mrs Fox, played by Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter‘s Moaning Myrtle), finds her work helping “fallen women” sidelined due to consumption. Her love interest, though he is unaware of her feelings (or his own for that matter) is Henry Rackham (Sherlock‘s Mark Gatiss). His confused emotions lead his brother William to suggest: “She wants you to give her a good seeing to. She wants you to give her a good fucking, Henry.”

But the lightness in tone, and performances, is underscored by the grotesquely beautiful finale for the unrequited couple. Visually arresting and incredibly unsettling, the penultimate scene featuring Gatiss will leave the audience deeply moved and uneasy.

This is thanks in part to the touching score which illuminates the entire episode, along with the aurally intriguing soundscape. Equally pleasing are the gorgeous closing scenes set in Rackham’s lavender field; the colours are simply stunning and will make you want to post your television to someone as a love note.

It’s a much more sombre episode than the first, akin to a lover’s tiff that precedes a bout of satisfying sexual acts. While we learn more about our characters, the devilishly bleak tone may well leave you hollow with sorrow and aching for some fun.

Airs at 9pm on Wednesday 13th April 2011 on BBC Two.

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