The Crimson Petal and the White DVD Review: a different side of Victorian England

One of the most striking elements of The Crimson Petal and the White (2011) is the way it looks. The four-part miniseries is set in Victorian England, but this is a very different side of it than we are normally shown. The section of London in which a prostitute known only as Sugar (Romola Garai) inhabits is a seemy one. It is dark, gritty, and unsettling -- an underworld where violence and insanity are always just around the corner. It is into this terrain that William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd) ventures to escape the confines of home with his mentally ill wife, Agnes (Amanda Hale).

William is the heir to a profitable perfume business, but his true interest lies in writing. Unfortunately, William has no real writing talent, a fact which does not escape his father. To get William to take the business seriously, his father cuts his allowance. It is at this point that he meets Sugar, who has dreams of becoming a novelist herself.

The two are infatuated with each other, and eventually William moves Sugar into the Rackham household, ostensibly to care for his daughter Sophie (Isla Watt). As Agnes' madness deepens, the authorities move to put her into an asylum. The night before this is to happen, Sugar assists her in escaping. Later on, William mistakenly identifies a body as that of Agnes, and she is pronounced dead.

After all of this turmoil, William grows cold towards Sugar. The lowest point for them comes when Sugar discovers that she is pregnant, and has the pregnancy terminated. William is unaware of the abortion though, and when he discovers that she is with child, he kicks her out of his house. He has begun to court another woman by this time.

When Sugar recovers from this outrageous act, she runs off with Sophie in tow. But she somehow misplaces the manuscript she had been working on in the process. At this point, Sugar purchases a new notebook. She has decided to start both a new story, and a new life with young Sophie. When William discovers what she has done, he tries to catch up to them. But it is too late, and he realizes that he has now lost everything that was important to him.

The Crimson Petal and the White is an excellent piece of noir, and drew me in very quickly. The bonus features include deleted scenes (11 minutes), interviews with Romola Garai and Chris O’Dowd, director Marc Munden, and some of the members of the crew (20 minutes). There are also character biographies. The new Acorn Media edition of The Crimson Petal and the White is a two-DVD set, and marks the mini-series’ first DVD appearance in the United States. For those who missed this great BBC program on Encore last month, this set is highly recommended.

By Greg Barbrick

About the author

Greg Barbrick has been watching TV so long he remembers watching first run episodes of Star Trek.

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