After our marvelous tea party, detailed by Katherine here, we settled down to watch the first two episodes of a four-part miniseries called “The Crimson Petal and the White” (2011), starring Romola Garai as Sugar, a high-end prostitute, Chris O’Dowd (who you might have recently seen in Thor 2: The Dark World as Natalie Portman/Jane Foster’s “sea bass” date) as her client, William Rackham, Mark Gatiss (aka Mycroft Holmes from BBC’s Sherlock) as his brother Henry Rackham, Gillian Anderson as Mrs. Castaway the Madam, and Shirley Henderson (also known as Moaning Myrtle to us Potterheads) as Mrs. Fox. It’s based on a 2002 book by Michel Faber and is set in Victorian-era England. According to Wikipedia, the title is a reference to a Tennyson poem called “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal“, taken from the first line: “Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white”. As we go through the remaining episodes, I’ll have to see how the content of the series fully relates back to this particular text.
The series opens with us, the audience, following a mysterious, well-dressed woman through the disgusting, filth-ridden streets of Victorian London. One of the first things you notice (besides the dirt-and-sore-covered troglodyte residents of the streets) are these tiny wings on the back of this woman’s coat. As you can probably tell, it’s a very pretty (if heavy-handed) metaphor that is sure to be important later in the series. I always appreciate movies and television episodes that present Victorian England sans rose-colored glasses. You are immediately hit with scenes of horrible poverty, poor hygiene, obese, grimy whores covered in open wounds and peeing in chamber pots, and so forth. Soon we come to know that the diamond in the middle of all this rough is a high-end courtesan by the name of Sugar.
Sugar, is of course, the talk of all the fine young gentlemen who say she can be anything and everything to every man: a celebrity among whores. Our (rather pathetic) male protagonist soon finds himself intrigued by the thought of her and pays her a visit. She surprises the hell out of him by speaking on various intellectual topics of interest, switching from art to literature to music without missing a beat, buttering him up like a Paula Deen recipe. Almost immediately, he falls completely and desperately in love with her and plans to do anything to make himself her exclusive company. Hmmm, naïve and problematic, anyone?
It really is impressive to watch her “work” him over intellectually. She’s highly intelligent, extremely well read, too clever for him by far, and she’s completely out of his league. The three of us were both amused and completely offended by his condescending behavior towards her, when she clearly outclassed him by a mile. She finds subtle ways to insert herself into his life of privilege as the heir to a fancy perfumery (think Yardley), looking both for diversion and purpose in her life, and achieving it as a sort of Cyrano to his Christian. We also discover that she is herself a bit of a writer, nursing elaborate revenge fantasies on her clients and using them as fuel for her ongoing novel. I SENSE POSSIBLE FORESHADOWING. Regardless, she tries to seize whatever power she possibly can from an utterly marginalized and powerless position. Perhaps she’ll succeed?
While William feeds his infatuation with Sugar, his mentally and emotionally fragile wife is left to wither away alone at their large estate home, a proverbial madwoman/wife in the attic a la Jane Eyre. The audience is left unsure as to whether or not the wife is actually suffering from any mental or physical illness or whether she’s being gaslit into fragility and hysteria thanks to the super-molesty ministrations of her doctor (he’s from the whole “Oh, I can feel that your womb shifted so you must be crazy” Victorian school of doctoring). William himself seems so unwilling to deal with her ‘condition’ that he leaves her almost completely to the staff and runs back to Sugar. Drug use may eventually become involved. It’s basically a hot mess all around and no one’s a hero.
As you can probably tell, and in no uncertain terms, sexuality (and nearly all male/female interaction) is presented as a horror. The three of us found ourselves turning away in disgust more often than not and nearly every sexual encounter was punctuated by one of us saying, “UGH, gross!” or something similar. Women are presented as objects to be used horribly and discarded without a backward glance. The sex was not, in fact, sexy and was more likely to turn your stomach and send you to the showers. You also saw practical scenes of what it must have been like to live as a sex worker, including lack of privacy, douching/genital cleansing, and generally unromantic conditions. Again, what we have here is brutally honest storytelling, which in itself is refreshing, even if it wasn’t comfortable to watch (though all very-well acted).
At first glance, it seems a classic “whore with a heart of gold” tale but I still feel like it like we have roads yet to travel with the story and that it will (hopefully) transcend that tired trope. We watched the first two episodes of four and clearly, there’s a great deal left to tell. There was also a random bizarre subplot involving William’s suppressed cleric brother (played by Gatiss) wanting to get it on with Moaning Myrtle, so I made serious work of the Mycroft/Myrtle jokes that were available to me.
So, what say you, Dear Reader? Would you give this series (or book) a chance or would you pass by it like a whorehouse in the late 1800’s?