Mind Yer Step: Tread Carefully Through ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’

Posted by Sharon Deans on April 07, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , ,

‘Mind Yer Step’ indeed, as we trudge through the ordure, the blood, the piss buckets and the douche basins of backstreet Victorian London in BBC 2’s four-part adaptation of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White.   I watched the first part with some trepidation, slightly worried about how the essence of Faber’s brilliant novel could possibly be condensed and brought to bear on the small screen; I need not have fretted.

From the opening minutes we are immediately plunged into the ‘dark Victorian underbelly’ of London (although filmed, I believe, in Manchester; for those of you who have never been, Manchester really is an architectural delight, especially around the Royal Exchange).  However, no matter how ‘real’ this portrait of London attempts to be, we still feel we have seen it all before: the over-turned carriage, the dying horse, the drunks in the street, the bare-footed urchins, the pock-marked whores, and, for me, it is its surrealism rather than its realism that sets this adaptation apart from similar portrayals.  Akin to Nina in Black Swan, we follow the prostitute Sugar from behind as she quickly wends her way through the damp, dark, filth-ridden streets to visit a friend who has been beaten to a pulp by two ‘clients’, and who is now close to death.  We never lose sight of Sugar, as her magnificent red hair is our shining beacon; whilst effective in the book, this works superbly well on screen.

As in both Red Riding and Black Swan wings are a recurrent motif from the offset (and slightly overdone, one might argue).  In the opening scene a small boy runs by with swan wings pinned to his jacket, Sugar’s dress has wing markings on its back (surely an anachronism, but we will allow in the light of surrealism), a man in a rather terrifying bird mask rushes past; in later scenes, Agnes (Rackham’s ‘mad’ wife) tries to ‘liberate’ a stuffed bird from a guest’s hat, and subsequently neurotically cuts out bird shapes from her dresses.  A caged bird herself, she wants to be free.  Indeed, all the characters want to be free.

When not working on her back, Sugar is working at her desk, writing a book and seeking to wreak revenge, through words, on every ‘worm’ who comes to Mrs Castaway’s door, and this television adaptation nicely visualises Sugar’s fantasies without warning, and so seamlessly that you think that Rackham has had his throat cut, or is tied to the bed awaiting Sugar’s torture.

The entire programme is a visual treat, and if you don’t agree, then stick with the book.  The various whore-houses with their differing ‘classes’ of whores are well contrasted with each other, and Mrs Castaway’s incongruous Virgin Mary ‘wallpaper’ is contrasted brilliantly with the William Morris bedecked walls of Rackham’s house in Chepstow Villas.   Scenes in The Fireside Inn and the Rackham Perfume Factory are similarly well-realised.  I am not a purist, and have a completely open mind when it comes to cinematic or televisual adaptations of novels, however, I must admit to a squeal of delight when I recognised Sugar’s ‘blue and green dress’!

For me, all characterisations, with the exception of one, were spot-on.  Romola Garai, who we have seen grow up via Daniel Deronda and Emma, is exceptional, as always, turning from dead-eyed to bright-eyed at the flip of a switch, and I am glad they let her keep Sugar’s pale lashes, papery lips and dry skin.  I was rather fed-up hearing, in previews, that Chris O’Dowd, from The IT Crowd, was a ‘revelation’ in this show, however, a revelation he most certainly is (despite one too many elocution lessons I fear), and he perfectly encapsulates the sweaty-lipped Rackham.  Amongst the ‘older’ characters Gillian Anderson is a superbly grotesque Mrs Castaway – that face, that dress, those scissors!, and the ever-wonderful Tom Georgeson is a suitably bluff and suitably accented Rackham senior.  The ubiquitous Mark Gatiss (he seems to appear everywhere at the moment) convinces as Henry Rackham, as does Shirley Henderson as Emmeline Fox.  Watch too, for an eerily creepy turn by the perfectly cast Richard E Grant as Dr Curlew, who is treating Agnes’s brain disorder through her petticoats.

The one problem I had in casting was that of Agnes herself.   For me, Amanda Hale’s performance, despite rave reviews elsewhere, just isn’t convincing, but perhaps it will grow through the next few episodes.  Also, physically I feel she is too tall and too ‘jolly hockey sticks’ for the role: I was looking for someone more doll-like and petite, and the scene when she totters down those interminable stairs, determined to reach the outside world, falls on the wrong side of ridiculous, it made me laugh (visions of Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques forgetting her tea-tray after a long walk kept springing to mind) whereas in the book her attempts to get outside and be ‘normal’ are poignant.

However, one of the most touching scenes involving Agnes is when she stands staring out of the window, dressed in, and framed by, lace, looking very ethereal and angelic herself.  She discovers the brightly coloured Sugar looking up and sighs: ‘My angel’.  This signals the end of the first episode, and I, for one, look forward to seeing more.  Those who have not read the book will have to watch to find out what sort of ‘angel’ Sugar is: an avenging one or a delivering one, or both, perhaps?  Opinion is divided.  The characters in this novel are ambiguous in the extreme, that is part of its success, and it will be interesting to find out whether this ambiguity is captured on film.  Step carefully through the world of The Crimson Petal and the White, and don’t make any hasty conclusions.

My only real disappointment in this first episode was that nobody did, in fact, say ‘Mind yer step’ (a phrase thrown knowingly at prostitutes and used liberally in the novel)!

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