Judge Gordon Sullivan's first bike had the crimson pedal and the white to teach him left from right.
Enter a Victorian England You've Never Seen.
The BBC has a reputation for producing adaptations of classic British novels, especially those from the nineteenth century. Whether Austen, Bronte, or Dickens, if there's a major novel from the period, there's almost certain to be a costumed adaptation from the folks at the Beeb. However, times have changed. While the BBC is still committed to bringing classic English novels to the small screen, they've also made huge strides in adapting more recent work as well. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples is 2011's The Crimson Petal and the White, based on a 2002 novel by Michel Faber. Though it's got the costumes and historical cred of the more usual BBC material, its heart is a slightly updated take on the Victorian London we've come to see.
Set in Victorian England, The Crimson Petal and the White is the story of the plucky prostitute Sugar (Romola Garai, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights). Though beset by all the problems of her age—lack of respect, excessive disease—she falls in love with a man of privilege, William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd, Friends with Kids), who is set to inherit a perfume fortune. Conveniently for Sugar, Rackham's wife is mentally ill and therefore in seclusion. Under the pretext that she will act as a nanny, Rackham moves Sugar into his house where she bonds with both his wife and his daughter. However, when things become more difficult between them, everything is put in danger.
As with most historical dramas that get adapted into miniseries, The Crimson Petal and the White relies on its acting and production design to win the day. In both aspects, the series shows itself totally effective in creating a world and conveying a sense of it to the viewer.
The acting in this series is uniformly excellent. Romola Garai has starred in a number of well-received BBC shows, and she makes Sugar believable and sympathetic. The Crimson Petal and the White aired in Britain just before Chris O'Dowd impressed audiences with his role as the loveable cop in Bridesmaids, and it's wonderful to see the change in his character here. Smaller roles are equally well-staffed. Between her role here and in Bleak House, Gillian Anderson is making a mark in British TV drama. Richard E. Grant is always welcome, and here he plays a doctor.
Production design is similarly impressive. Unlike many other adaptations, which tend to stick with one social class or another, The Crimson Petal and the White is all about mobility. That takes us from the scummy back alleys of London's lower depths all the way to its most sumptuously appointed houses. This allows for variety in costume and setting that gives the designers something to play with. The look of the show is similarly changeable, from moody darkness to well-saturated brightness.
The show gets an effective DVD release, with the four hourlong episodes spread over two discs. The show's dark, moody atmosphere is well-replicated on this standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Black levels are deep and appropriate, detail is fine, and colors appear sumptuous during many scenes. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo audio is also good, keeping dialogue clear and balanced with the score. English subtitles are included for those who have difficulty with British accents.
Extras start with 11 minutes of deleted scenes, and include 20 minutes worth of interviews with Garai and O'Dowd, as well as a number of members of the show's crew. Character biographies are included to remind viewers of who is who throughout the episodes.
Of course the problem (if indeed it is a problem) with The Crimson Petal and the White is that it is fundamentally a kind of modern-day soap opera set in Victorian England. Much like other films that transport modern sensibilities to the period (Sweeney Todd comes to mind), The Crimson Petal and the White can seem a bit lightweight and silly rather than involving and dramatic as it is evidently reaching for. That's not a problem for Sweeney Todd, as its darkly comic material isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously, but this costume-drama seems to want to offer more than that. For those who like their drama very serious this will be fatal, while for others, the show will instead become a guilty pleasure.
Part of the ridiculous nature of the film comes from the focus on Sugar. I'm sure there were very intelligent women in the Victorian era who were involved in prostitution, but Sugar comes off as just a bit too modern-woman to be narratively believable. Though I have no doubt women like her existed in the era, I also think that they didn't act like what we think of as a "tough woman" now. It's not a fatal flaw—in some ways its even fun—but it does make the show a bit hard to swallow at points.
The Crimson Petal and the White may not the BBC's best adaptation, but it shows the network is willing to stretch beyond its comfort zone to take on different material. For that, it should be applauded. Those who enjoyed the show while it was being aired can pick up this well-appointed DVD set with confidence. For those who skipped the broadcast, The Crimson Petal and the White is worthwhile for those who enjoy costumed British drama of a slightly funkier style. This isn't Downton Abbey after all.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
• Deleted Scenes
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