“The Crimson Petal and the White’’: Revisiting Victorian times with an R-rated twist

Romola Garai and Chris O’Dowd in “The Crimson Petal and the White.’’
Romola Garai and Chris O’Dowd in “The Crimson Petal and the White.’’ –Origin Pictures

If you’ve read Dickens, the Brontes, or Trollope you know there are things they didn’t mention overtly in their novels. Things such as — shhh! — sexuality and prostitution. The social and romantic ills they took on — especially Dickens — were explicitly cruel; but the kisses they mentioned were passionless, polite, and rare, and the sex trade only existed between the lines. Nancy in “Oliver Twist’’? She really would do anything, and I’m not talking crochet.

A number of current writers, including Sarah Waters, A.S. Byatt, and Michel Faber, author of the 2002 bestseller “The Crimson Petal and the White,’’ have revisited Victorian times from a contemporary point of view. They’ve fitted their 19th-century stories of class doom and gender disparity with sexual material, as well as with post-Freudian psychological layers, to pry out what might once have only been inferred.


In this way, the transporting two-part adaptation of “The Crimson Petal and the White,’’ which premieres at 8 p.m. on Encore, serves as a valuable complement to the “Masterpiece’’ approach to the classics. About the relationship between a 19-year-old prostitute and a wealthy married businessman, it is the R to PBS’s PG. It follows the characters, Sugar (Romola Garai) and William (Chris O’Dowd), into the bedroom, where their power struggles are as visible as they are in the living room. He’s the Rochester to Sugar’s Jane Eyre, and then some.

The plot has the shrewd, book-reading Sugar trying to break out of her profession through William. At first they bond in Sugar’s squalid whorehouse (whose madam is played hauntingly by Gillian Anderson); later, they try to make it work on his turf. William is particularly needy, since his wife, Agnes (Amanda Hale), has mental problems that leave her bedridden and delusional. She feels as trapped as Sugar.

There are a few revelations in this rich adaptation, concisely written for the screen by Lucinda Coxon. I was in awe of O’Dowd’s performance, and not only because he is primarily known in the States for his comedy work in the movie “Bridesmaids,’’ on the British sitcom “The IT Crowd,’’ and on “Girls.’’ He brings true dramatic weight to his work here, as his William wavers between strength and cowardice, snobbery and insecurity. O’Dowd makes William into a possible hero, so you aren’t quite sure whether he is a sniveling, pouting son of privilege or a man willing to break out of the oppressive conventions of his time and take Sugar’s side. Garai, as usual, is excellent, as Sugar manipulates William, pretending to cry out with pleasure when they make love. But O’Dowd, with his expressive face, is more emotionally compelling.


And director Marc Munden makes refreshingly bold choices for the camera angles and music. He uses hazy focus and off-kilter framing to set us off-balance, and the soundtrack ranges from gnawing electronic hums to choral ecstasy. It’s all brilliantly, effectively, appropriately jarring, even if it sends the “Masterpiece’’ crowd to the medicine cabinet for Dramamine.

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