‘The Crimson Petal And The White’: Episode 1 review

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Blushing and pounding onto our screens with an incredibly strong off and on-screen pedigree is a new four-part BBC drama set in the darker side of Victorian London, revealing a world seething with vitality, sexuality, ambition and emotion.

Adapted from the Michel Faber novel of the same name by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon, The Crimson Petal And The White is directed by award-winning Marc Munden (The Devil’s Whore) and counts Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter‘s Moaning Myrtle), Richard E Grant (Withnail & I), Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) and Romola Garai (Emma) amongst its cast. A remarkable pedigree indeed.

This “intimate psychological thriller” centres round Sugar (Romola Garai) – an intelligent prostitute, secretly penning her own novel, who meets wealthy businessman William Rackham (The IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd), also a “writer” (or so he wishes), and begins to plan a new future.

Rackham seeks solitude in the “tart with a brain” after some considerable troubles with his wife Agnes (Murderland‘s Amanda Hale), who appears to have some mental issues and is attended by physician Doctor Curlew (Richard E Grant). After some time together Rackham procures Sugar’s services exclusively.

The opening moments will leave the viewer in no doubt this is no tame period drama with its brash colours, frenetic camera work and swift editing. Some will certainly be turned off by its garishness and, to be frank, graphic lewdness. It’s clearly a warning to any Daily Mail readers and those with Ofcom on their speed dial – keep away.

Those who stick with it will be rewarded; though, it has to be said, The Crimson Petal And The White is an uneven experience. It’s portrayed as a drama but, like BBC Two’s short-lived but wonderful Desperate Romantics, there are laughs abound leaving a tonally odd hour.

Partially at fault is the performance of the extremely likable leading man Chris O’Dowd, who plays the mid-life crisis buffoon well but his attempts at a consistent accent will infuriate. Likewise Gillian Anderson comes off very pantomime as brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway; a female Dick Van Dyke to be sure.

Also disconcerting is the style throughout, full of constant in-frame focus pulling (somewhat irritating) and the overused edge-darkening. Again, those more comfortable with traditional televisual values will balk at the ever-changing focus – not to mention scratching and squinting their eyes.

But there are some deeply affecting and dramatic scenes, none more chilling than Agnes’ examination by her physician where we discover the true nature of her distemper. There’s a clever mirroring here with the aforementioned Mrs Castaway as both women find themselves cutting up items (pictures and dresses) maniacally through the episode. The divisions in class and lifestyle could not be clearer and yet their personalities are tragically connected.

For those who enjoy florid behaviour and bouncy, trouser-rousing rompiness then you’ll not be disappointed – there are numerous, and slightly gratuitous, sex acts going on as well as some other sordid antics. But the tone shifts and eye-distracting style may overpower the story itself. A brave first episode, nonetheless.

Airs at 9pm on Wednesday 6th April 2011 on BBC Two.

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