03 May 2011

Miss Sugar's inexorable rise

Photograph: BBC/Origin Pictures/Origin Pictures
I haven't yet read Michael Faber's 2002 novel that inspired the recent BBC2 four-part Victorian gothic dramatisation of The Crimson Petal and the White, but having now watched the programmes I'm definitely interested in following the story in more detail. I was drawn to the TV adaptation by the news that Romola Garai was to star as the central character, the prostitute turned mistress known as Sugar, but also by the prospect of viewing another well-made period piece, a genre that the BBC still excels at. And yes, the TV drama was definitely compelling viewing, with high production standards and quality acting performances on display.

I've seen and enjoyed Garai's performances in her early film, I Capture the Castle, and in the 2009 BBC production of Austen's Emma, another four-parter. It's been a while since I saw the former, but in the latter Garai was excellent as the thoughtless, manipulative and naive title character. While Garai's performance in The Crimson Petal is commendable, I wonder if the role was the right fit for her. The character is clearly intelligent and calculating, but the accumulated psychological baggage that goes with her troubled upbringing and demeaning occupation means that it must have been a challenge to judge how to pitch the performance. Faber said in a recent interview:

Scriptwriter Lucinda Coxon, in cutting the 850-page narrative down to filmable size, has wisely decided that at heart, it's about parental nurture or the lack of it – about grownups who are really overgrown children in search of lost or absent mothers, and the children that they in turn produce. I had feared that any film or TV adaptation of The Crimson Petal would discard this theme as uninteresting, and instead generate the drama from Sugar's rise through society: the ruthless, beautiful courtesan who claws her way to the top. Maybe that's the drama most people would have preferred to see. Maybe the risks that Coxon and director Marc Munden have taken, in creating something that's so different from the norm, will lose them their audience. I hope not.

Certainly this was no vehicle for lashings of skin and lasciviousness like that afforded Billie Piper in The Secret Diaries of a Call-Girl, or for a brazen social climber dazzling her way into the elite, like Natasha Little in the 1998 TV adaptation of Vanity Fair. (The latter was also directed by Marc Munden).  Perhaps in achieving a nuanced performance, Garai allowed other cast members to overshadow her a little. Nevertheless, I still believe she has the potential to become a major star as her acting career develops. It would only take one breakthrough film and she could be a household name. 

Chris O'Dowd, as Sugar's wealthy patron Rackham, impresses because his dramatic performance is relatively unexpected. Best known for his central role as tech helpdesk layabout Roy in four seasons of the Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd, the Irish actor does a solid job as the unreliable and self-interested industrialist who Sugar clings to as her escape route from the slums.      

Gillian Anderson also does good work as Sugar's brothel-keeper, Mrs Castaway, and it's refreshing to see an actress relishing performing in such an unglamorous role. Castaway is a wizened, crow-like figure, both dislikeable and sinister in a thoroughly Dickensian fashion.

But the strongest plaudits should go to Amanda Hale as Agnes Rackham, the story's resident Mrs Rochester. Hale delivers a strong performance that steals most of the scenes she's in. At the opening of the dramatisation Rackham's mentally ill wife Agnes is struggling to retain her ability to function in polite society despite the growing onset of schizophrenic symptoms. Agnes' descend from partial lucidity into madness is exacerbated by the harsh medical treatment she is receiving from the family doctor (the villainous Dr Curlew, played by Richard E Grant). It must be hard to pitch the portrayal of the onset of madness so accurately, because it has to be spread out over the four episodes of the series and not appear to be disjointed. Hale is both pitiable and utterly believable as Agnes, struggling to maintain her position as the wife of a pillar of society despite the hallucinations in her head. The scene in which a louche lady friend offers her a 'pick-me-up' pill to be taken before dinner is particularly charming, as Agnes dreamily beams her way through dinner with her bemused husband.

For those who missed it first time around The Crimson Petal and the White is definitely worth seeking out, either in re-run or on DVD when it is released. And no doubt it will encourage others, like me, to seek out Michael Faber's original text to explore the story in greater detail.
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