The Crimson Petal and the White: BBC miniseries review.
I’ve previously posted a review of Michel Faber’s excellent novel. Today, I thought I’d write about the 2010 BBC miniseries based on it.
Plot refresher: Sugar is a 19-year-old prostitute in 1875 London, determined to drag herself out of the gutter at all costs. The Crimson Petal and the White follows her journey. A modern look at the classic Victorian novel tropes.
Romola Garai stars as our protagonist, Sugar. I had previously seen her as Emma in the BBC miniseries of the same title, and as Amelia Sedley in 2004’s Vanity Fair.
In a bit of an “aha!” moment, I finally recognised Chris O’Dowd, who took on the role of William Rackham - quite different from his most famous character Roy (The IT Crowd).
Sherlock and Doctor Who fans will be happy to see Mark Gatiss in the role of William’s older brother Henry, playing alongside Shirley Henderson as Mrs. Fox. Devoted Whovians will remember her as Ursula Blake, from that episode in season 2. Yes, the one with the horrible innuendo. For Potterheads: you may strain to recognise Moaning Myrtle, but it is she.
Amanda Hale I didn’t recognise, but she does very well as the more-than-nervous Mrs. Agnes Rackham, and on perusing her IMDB-page I find I have seen here before, as Mary in Persuasion - but the drastically different haircolour does make all the difference.
In a minor role as William’s college friend Bodley was Blake Ritson, whom I recognised from his own role in BBC’s Emma and whom I half expected to start wooing Sugar.
I must say that nearly every main character was cast very differently from what I might have imagined. Romola, while a very good actress, was not as tall and gangly as Sugar is explicitly described to be, though I am glad they didn’t think to get rid of her dry lips. Chris O’Dowd, on the other hand, is quite suitable as William (slightly slack-jawed, bit of a “not sure I understand” look in his eyes), but distracted me terribly for at least the first episode. (“Roy, why are you in Victorian London? Does Moss know about this, Roy?”)
I am a huge fan of Gatiss’ acting, but I had imagined Henry’s looks (if not demeanor) quite differently. Fantastic though he is, he is hardly the classically handsome, muscular, tall fellow.
Agnes, too, is described as very doll-like and petite.
That said, in demeanour, every single actor interpreted his or her character exactly as one could wish from the descriptions. Having read the book several times, it just took me a while to let go of my preconceptions regarding their appearance.
As an adaptation
Given that a feature-lenght film starring Kirsten Dunst was announced before “They” made the switch to a miniseries, I’m quite happy with the result. The Crimson Petal and the White covers too wide a scope to be accurately captured in less than 3 hours. I am very happy they decided to do it in four.
Aside from a few typical little changes, the series adhered very well to the events and feel of the book. Personally, I believe audiences are quite intelligent enough to realize that Sugar might not be very happy as a prostitute in Victorian London, without the added information that her friend Elizabeth was killed by customers. In the book, she dies of an illness, which demonstrates quite well why the profession isn’t altogether glamorous and desirable. In addition, instead of William’s allowance slowly dwindling, the first episode shows his father withdrawing it altogether - a turn of events that is not only unlikely but also much too likely to push him into action without Sugar’s interference.
A more substantial difference lies in the final episode’s scene between Sugar and Cheesman, the driver. No spoilers, but I will say that I think the book handles this in a much more natural and realistic way, and one that marks the ending of a chapter in Sugar’s life all the more notably.
A very nice addition is the way Sugar’s novel is handled: actually shown as if it were happening, so that momentary confusion can arise. This is one area where the series can actually improve on the book.
Interestingly, while I always feel rather sorry for Agnes, the miniseries leaves me feeling so much more strongly than the book. I imagine that is due to the excellent performance of Amanda Hale, who makes much of Agnes’ nervous fluttering and is so very wonderfully expressive. While Sugar, in book and adaptation, can fend very well for herself thank you very much, Agnes seems even more vulnerable when seen rather than imagined.
The BBC miniseries is an excellent adaptation which I can heartily recommend to anyone. Once you get over the initial disorientation with regards to the character’s looks, at least. As an adaptation, it adheres nicely to the spirit of the novel, although a few regrettable “our audience wouldn’t understand” type changes are made. Overlook that and you will certainly enjoy the experience.
Given the regular occurence of sex scenes, you might want to be careful to avoid embarrasment. For example, I wouldn’t watch this with relatives.