In a nutshell: Keep your wits about you and immerse yourself in this vast and intricate tale.
Popcorn rating: 4.5/5
What a boring place “ye olden days” would have been if it had all been like Lark Rise to Candleford. All yawnsome drama over a missing stamp or fretting about a besmirched hem week after endless week. Luckily for viewers of a slightly more macabre bent, BBC2’s new drama The Crimson Petal and the White does to period drama what Christopher Nolan did to the Batman franchise. In other words, it gives it a much needed –and, in this case, a decidedly filthy – reboot.
Adapted from Michael Faber’s equally scintillating novel of the same name, The Crimson Petal and the White focuses on the intertwining lives of scheming prostitute Sugar (Romala Garai), her patriarch William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd) and his mad as a hatter missus, Agnes (Amanda Hale). Set in 1870s London, a vile stinking cesspit of a city, this intricate and compelling story of sex, madness, money and violent death is a hundred million miles away from Lark Rise, Candleford and Downton Abbey.
The Crimson Petal is littered with wonderfully gruesome characters, each one worthy of mention had I but the space and time. Chris O’Dowd takes a welcome step away from the comedy scene to prove his acting chops with a subtle, feckless portrayal of the bumbling Rackham while Garai emotes coldly from her green eyes to her dried lips as the serpentine Sugar, but my heart belongs to nervy Agnes, glassy eyed and swaying in her drug induced haze, and the delectably sinister, Mrs Castaway, played with aplomb by the always marvellous Gillian Anderson.
The narrative, the characters, however; are mere extras, a nothing to how The Crimson Petal and The White looks. For what a lewd and grotesque world BBC2 (yes, really, that old stalwart the BBC) has given us. A world of moody darkness, of grime and squalor, of murky greens, deep scarlets, rich, suffocating blacks; a world shared with us via cracked mirrors, off kilter angles and fuzzy, shallow depth of focus, all tinged with filth – both the metaphoric and the literal. And it is utterly absorbing.
And yet, while it looks stunning, it is also this lyrical beauty that is The Crimson Petal’s only flaw. For while visually it is enticing, the keenness to seep all in a gothic sheen means The Crimson Petal can, at times, lack humanity. For there is an air of portent in almost every sentence spoken by Sugar, and this “need” for a constant, sinister meaning in her dialogue has a tendency to detract from the narrative, leaving us, as viewers, just one step away from true empathy. A small complaint but such a pity in an otherwise excellent drama.
Faber’s tale has been likened to that of Dickens, had Dickens been writing today, had he let his imagination and pen run riot without a thought to the censor – or his intended readers’ sensibilities. It is true, there is a great deal of Dickens in The Crimson Petal and the White but there is a much, much more too and, like the wonderful horridness of Roald Dahl, it is a delight – albeit one for grown-ups only.