The Crimson Petal & the White: Victorian filth

You might get more than you expected if you tune into this looking for Victorian filth. Yes, there are bare breasts a plenty, whores, and all manner of lewd behaviour. The brothel S&M shadow puppetry tickled me particularly – the Victorians were certainly inventive when it came to perversion. But alongside smut of a sexual nature, this production positively reeks of other bodily fluids. The streets look rank and stinking, we see a cart overturned, the horse prostrate and blood puddled across the dank, grey cobbles as possessions are pilfered by passers-by. Many faces are raddled with pox, and inside the many sheeted partitions of the brothel, the camera sweeps past heaps of laundry and a woman pissing over a bowl.

Conversely, in the home of wealthy perfumiers the Rackhams, we get ostentatious wealth, lots of maidservants in black and white, wood panelling, gilded mirrors and red painted walls. But the stench is equally bad here, because William Rackham’s wife, Agnes, very much in the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Yellow Wallpaper vein, is going mad in the stifled interior, in no way helped by the expensive attentions of dodgy Dr Curlew (Richard E Grant) who keeps threatening to have her committed in order to manipulate her into being sexual abused by him during their sessions. At one point she writes ‘help’ on the condensation on her bedroom window.

The pompous and rather ridiculous Rackham seeks relief from the stresses of home and his failure to convince his father that he should allow him to write for a living by visiting über prostitute Sugar, played by the superb Romola (I Capture The Castle, Emma) Garai. He finds her solicitations to be so extraordinary and tender (though entirely fake) that he pays both her and brothel keeper Mrs Castaway (Gillian Anderson) sufficient money to make Sugar his sole sexual property. Sugar is also a writer and there is a delicious literary joke running through about Sugar’s fantasies about slashing his throat.

The story is taken from a 2002 book by Michel Faber, which I haven’t read, so I can’t comment on how accurate an adaptation it is. The title (thank you Wiki) is from a 1847 poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson entitled Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, the opening line of which is ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white’. But I did enjoy this first episode very much. It’s clever, unsettling and tricksy, and beautifully shot. Plus there are brilliant performances all round, including by the ever marvellous Shirley Henderson.

Posted by Inkface

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Crimson Petal & the White: Victorian filth

  1. Working the Look

    Oh I do agree. Particularly as I have an old-fashioned fear that adaptations of really great books will be rubbish and ruin the book for me forever (thank you Nicolas Cage/Captain Corelli). The book is just filthy in all senses, and both the series and your review capture that brilliantly. I did in particular love Sugar’s eczema. Hurrah for somethign good to watch!

  2. inkface

    Oh, the bear grease, of course! I’d forgotten.

    Thanks WTL, glad you liked it.