It was a rainy week here in east coast ville, and I've been ready for this weekend for the last month. So, as a little bit of a reward for a very long week and month, I'm watching the third episode of The Crimson Petal & the White, and new BBC costume drama adapted from the 2002 Michael Farber novel.
I remember when the novel first came out: I found it in the corner of a Borders, just sitting there all alone on a high shelf, one of only four copies. I was drawn to it because the beautiful red color, the name, and how huge it was; my mother still makes fun that I only read books over 800 pages. And then I read the first page and I couldn't put it down. I placed in at the bottom of my pile and hoped my mom wasn't going to ask to look at it first. She didn't, she just laughed at how thick it was. Over the next few months I was enraptured, and shocked. It was the first time I realized just how Victorian London was. The characters, the life, the settings were all so vivid, so unabashed: its one of those novels I always think of fondly and place as a marker of change in my literary reading life.
So when I found out they were making an adaption, I was extremely trepidatious. The novel is so expansive; I wasn't sure how anyone could fit it all into four episodes, even if anyone included the writer himself. While I'm sure it is much better I didn't reread the book before starting the new miniseries, I find The Crimson Petal & the White not half bad. I know, that's a lack luster statement, but I find I'm somewhat without great praise for the series, though I cetainly do enjoy it.
I think my fondness is due to the performances more than the content of the show. I have seen Romola Garai in many roles, and in many of them I find her, well, annoying. But as Sugar (and even as Emma before) I find her rather refreshing. Chris O'Dawd as William Rackham is also just as strong, and while he is certainly not what I pictured for the wealthy perfumer, he plays the complex character well. But it is Amanda Hale (yep. miss sicky Elliot in Persuasion) who pulls out a stunning performance as the half-mad Agnes Rackham. In the novel, I don't remember thinking her quite insane, but more extremely sheltered and immature for her upbringing. Hale is able to take these fundamental themes in Agnes' inner dialogue throughout the novel and nuance them into her performance. It is heartbreaking and beautiful to see. Much had been made of Gillian Anderson's performance as Mrs. Castaway, but truthfully I think she has been under used and over publicized.
With still one episode left, I haven't felt much has been rushed; I'll enjoy seeing how the ending, rather confusing for me (dear lord) over 8 years ago, is worked. The Crimson Petal & the White is not a showy piece highlighting Victorian London like other dramas have been, but that is not what the goal of this drama was. The goal was some serious acting with some serious complex characters. And though much of the sexuality waxes on the squeamish side, the performances do make up for it.