Sugar (Romola Garai) becomes involved with the married William (Chris… (Origin Pictures )
Romola Garai, who starred in the period newsroom thriller "The Hour" — a hit British import that on BBC America was also one of the highlight's of last year's American television — is the star as well of the four-hour BBC miniseries "The Crimson Petal and the White." Playing here Monday and Tuesday on Encore, it is not "The Hour," but it is full of Romola Garai, an actress in whom strength and sensuality are inextricably mixed.
Garai plays Sugar, a brainy prostitute and local legend in Victorian London, working in the house of the pinched Mrs. Castaway (Gillian Anderson, who has let herself be made to look something like a well-dressed pterodactyl). Sugar, who is writing a book into which she pours the hate her life has bred in her, meets William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd, whom you are statistically more likely to have seen in a comedy, which is statistically likely to be "Bridesmaids"), a soap-and-scent heir who also fancies himself a writer, and senses a way out.
Rackham has a neurasthenic wife (Amanda Hale) whose treatments from Richard E. Grant's creepy doctor are worse than the disease, and an older brother (Mark Gatiss, who has both written for and appeared in "Doctor Who" and "Sherlock") overheated with religion. The singular Shirley Henderson (you know her as Moaning Myrtle) plays a rescuer of fallen women, and her customary quiet strangeness plays as a kind of relief from the picture's more energetically messed-up characters.
I can tell you that I guessed early how it would end, reckoning its obvious partiality to certain characters against its feminist-humanist critique of attitudes we call Victorian. Nearly every adult male character is some species of pig: "Vile man, eternal Adam, I indict you," Sugar writes in her manuscript. "I assure you, I did not fall, I was pushed."
Director Marc Munden, working from Lucinda Coxon's adaptation of Michel Faber's 2002 novel, has slathered the story with style. Improving video technology has made possible and affordable a huge bag of tricks formerly reserved for film, and there is barely a shot in "The Crimson Petal and the White" that doesn't use one of them: shallow focus and shifting focus, distorted images and asymmetrical framing, extreme close-ups and oversaturated colors.
The effect is something like a very long goth music video, with many passages in which titillation contains an element of disgust, or disgust an element of titillation. (They have been going around for ages like that, Titillation and Disgust.) Some of the fashion-shoot visuals do enhance the narrative, but just as often they form a kind of gauze that obscures it. You have to work a little harder to see what's going on.
And though I am partial to a moody, slowly told story, "Crimson Petal" could lose an hour without sacrificing a single scene or word of dialogue, and it would still seem slow and moody. (The soundtrack favors dreamy electronica.) The added time offers less in physical or psychological detail than in blocks of atmosphere, laid like spacers between one action and the next, this line and that one.
Still, it is far from uninteresting, and there are some excellent performances. With its imprisoned heroines, bad parents and lost and found children, and with its emphatic moral (which is not to say moralizing) streak, it has the bones and flesh of a fairy tale. And it is as something fantastical and even otherworldly, rather than as an authentic story of old England, that "The Crimson Petal and the White" is best read.
'The Crimson Petal and the White'
When: Part 1, 8 p.m. Monday; Part 2, 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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