Romola Garai’s quietly scheming Sugar turns the cogs of Mrs Rackham’s (Amanda Hale) illness in this gleeful second part of the BBC’s latest big-bucks costume drama, the exquisite Crimson Petal and The White. As beautifully drawn and innovately executed as last week’s installment, the only criticism I could come up with, is that the stingy producers should have given us more than four episodes.
This week snarly egotistical industrialist William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd from the IT Crowd! Honest!) has placed renowned teen-aged prostitute Sugar on his payroll as an exclusive mistress, under the madamship of Gillian Anderson, playing astoundingly against type as the mad, raggedy old brothel owner Mrs Castaway. He soon plucks her out of the ‘cesspit’ locale, namely St Giles, and bungs her in her own posh gaff in Marylebone. Meanwhile his wife Agnes is nose-diving further into mental illness, mistaking a loitering Sugar for an Angel, developing Victorian anorexia (green beans and Oxtail soup if one feels faint), and vomming on laydees at the theatre. It just won’t do.
Amanda Hale comes in to her own as Agnes Rackham, steering last week’s generic madwoman performance – all breathy sentences and creepy smiles – into something more tangibly tormented. Meanwhile Mark Gatiss simmers as Rackham’s evangelically Christian brother Henry, pulling off his signature ‘creepy ginger bloke’ performance with added relish. The rich, colourful cinematography teems with atmosphere and romance, and the script, adapted into four hour-long segments from Michel Faber’s 800 page novel, is both neat and nimble.
This series is shaping up to be a TV highlight of 2011. Will it reach the status of those landmark novel adaptations, the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice which wowed us back in 1995? Perhaps not, unless next week O’Dowd buffs up and starts emerging from ponds in a wet shirt. As a novel the source material doesn’t easily lend itself to television, with complex inner monologues and voice-of-God exposition, and the cacophonous sexual content might leave the Beeb averse to putting it out as a chocolate-box DVD giftset. But, the performances are as memorable and enduring as any definitive novel adaptation, and the sonorous direction, cinematography and costuming could spur The Crimson Petal And The White to the rank of a modern classic.