London, 1874: A hooker on her break sits scratching at parchment with a fountain pen. Beguiling orange ringlets spill from her scalp as she introduces us to life in London’s underbelly and, later, pens murderous revenge fantasies targeted at the men who have despoiled her. Elsewhere, a gentleman writer bemoans his lot: doolally wife; severed allowance and his failure to produce any actual writing. We wait for them to meet.
The Crimson Petal and the White--9pm, Wednesdays on BBC2--is pitched perfectly for the channel: erudite, creepy and mournful. Adapted from Michel Faber’s 2002 best-selling novel, Crimson is stuffed with stylised sadness and seedy Victoriana. Gaudy emulsion, browning decoupage and women in suffocating corsetry fill up the interiors while outside it’s dank and dingy. The camera prowls like a pervert, then darts in for close ups of powder-pale faces, thread veined cheeks and lips dehydrated from too much gin.
Gillian Anderson has aged-up wonderfully to play evil(ish) madam, Mrs Castaway. Her best girl is the redhead, Sugar (Romola Garai), whose soon-to-be only client is one William Rackham (the above-mentioned bemoaner, played by The IT Crowd’s Chris O'Dowd). He’s captivated by her reputation and her mind. Though, don’t be fooled into thinking he’s a decent sort just because he’s drawn to a woman who reads and writes. Rackham is lacking in everything but inherited status and Sugar knows it.
O’Dowd is an offbeat choice for an aristocratic leading male but he has a good go at it, including the received pronunciation. He slips back into Irish a bit when he shouts but it’s impossible not to forgive that adorable little face and those sad cow eyes. It’s Amanda Hale, however, who turns in the best performance as his shut-away wife Agnes. Tormented by mental illness and her well-meaning, womb-fiddling doctor (Richard E Grant), she’s just the tiniest most pitiful thing. You’ll want to snatch her away from her wretched life and brutally vague 19th century diagnosis.
Indeed, Crimson is all about the ladies. It makes us think about what it was to be a woman in Victorian Britain. Often, it was a fatal affliction and I’m already fretting that things won’t end well for the clever hooker and the mad wife.