One could say that gothic drama is not what it used to be, and one would mostly be correct, with the exception of the BBC's The Crimson Petal and the White, based on the novel by Michel Faber, which is gothic drama at its macabre finest.
Romola Garai stars as exceptionally literate and intelligent prostitute Sugar in Victorian London. She's high priced and sophisticated, to be sure, but really only a step or two above the streetwalkers turning tricks in alleys. That is, until she meets William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd, who turns in a surprisingly good dramatic performance), somewhat bumbling heir to a perfume manufacturing fortune. He feels lost and tossed about, since he only wants to write and live the life of a poet, and his father has cut off his allowance, which makes paying the servants ever so difficult. Sugar inspires him to do something more, to make business into a kind of poetry, and he plunges himself into work with a vengeance.
Realizing that Sugar is the source of his newfound vigor, William contracts with Sugar's madam, Mrs. Castaway (Gillian Anderson) to be her exclusive client. Frustrated with the increasingly erratic behavior of his mentally unwell wife Agnes (Amanda Hale), William soon takes her completely away from the brothel and installs her in a fine apartment as his mistress. Sugar finds all of this disquieting. She secretly hates the men she services in her trade, and is even writing a novel in which she luxuriates over the various methods by which she kills them, but she feels gratitude toward William for taking her out of that environment, and perhaps something more. Things get more complicated when William asks her to come and live in his house, serving as governess for his daughter Sophie (Isla Watt).
The whole tale is told with a dreamlike, actually often nightmare-like, quality. Characters and visions that could come right out of Horace Walpole or Franz Kafka, including the mad wife who sees angels and talks excitedly about the Convent of Health, the hunched up old madam and the cruel and decidedly creepy Dr. Curlew (Richard E. Grant). This is not the Victorian era that is usually presented in fancy costume dramas. It has a decidedly modern sensibility, with a lot of grittiness and dark meditation about it. The plot lines intertwine and fold in on themselves, but mostly they have to do with the rise and fall of William and Sugar's relationship, and how it impacts everything around them.
The performances are all uniformly strong, with nary a fumbled line read or missed cue to be seen, even among the minor roles. Romola Garai is the clear standout, however, giving Sugar a real depth and solidity. A quirking of her lips, a slight hesitation or puzzled look speaks volumes. She has fully absorbed the dictum that less is more in performance, and her subtle, understated turn is marvelously effective. Of course, Amanda Hale also gave Agnes a feeling of warmth and love even in her madness. And Chris O'Dowd's twitchy, uncomfortable William hits the mark as well.
The story is broken out into four episodes, each of approximately an hour in length, on two discs. Below are short episode descriptions, as provided on the discs:
The Crimson Petal and the White is hard hitting and insightful drama. It's also quite frank and graphic about the lives of prostitutes and others at the time, so don't be surprised by the considerable nudity, including a couple of full frontal shots featuring Chris O'Dowd. But the material never comes off as salacious, even though the viewer might be puzzled from time to time as to why a particular shot was included. Regardless, the show is very impactful, doesn't pull its punches, and is a joy to watch. Highly recommended.