Long Take: The Crimson Petal and the White Makes for Compelling Feminist Melodrama

Viewed September 12 & 14, 2012

CINE FEEL YEAH is all about the cinema, this much is true. But sometimes it is necessary to cast a glance at moving images more broadly defined. Case in point: director Marc Munden’s BBC Two miniseries adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel of the same name, The Crimson Petal and the White (2011), is so filled to the brim with less than reputable but intriguing characters, compelling melodrama, and enough symbolism to captivate any humanities major that I just couldn’t ignore it. Besides, the dramatic miniseries neatly fits the bill of one of my favorite subgenres, which centers around (usually historical) women rebelling against the dictated norms of her contemporary society. I caught the four-hour-long program when it aired on American premium cable television earlier this month, divided into two parts rather than its original four, and I cannot verify otherwise if the American telecast differs at all from the British standard. Either way, it is long and slow in some parts, but never so dull as to discourage continued viewing. It is also one of the more cinematic miniseries I have seen, featuring a more modern and eclectic score and a number of dizzying edits that are not the bread and butter of literary adaptations for TV. Before I forget: I have to warn you that I’m going to spoil pretty much everything.

The enviously prolific Romola Garai stars as the infamous teenage prostitute Sugar, but as she warns you in her voiceover narration, she is “far from sweet.” The story takes off in 1874, as she plies her trade at Madam Castaway’s (Gillian Anderson, looking a lot like a redheaded Gina McKee to me), a brothel tucked deep inside the dodgy end of London, where poverty, hunger, and disease persist. After hearing raves about Sugar from his friends who only wish they could have her, the feckless William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd), both the heir to a soap-manufacturing company and an aspiring novelist, seeks out her company. Their unproductive encounter, shall we say (drunk, he passes out and wets the bed before they can even begin), sets everything in motion: from that point on, he is hopelessly drawn to her, eventually buying her exclusivity, then moving her to her own apartment and finally into his family home. Right, I must mention that William is married to Agnes (Amanda Hale), who is psychologically disturbed after enduring years of sexual abuse and trauma. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly there; I will discuss this subject in due course. There is a robust cast of supporting characters, including William’s pious brother Henry (Mark Gatiss), the reformer of prostitutes and tuberculosis sufferer Mrs. Fox (Shirley Henderson), and Mrs. Fox’s brother and Agnes’s physician, Dr. Curlew (Richard E. Grant).

But The Crimson Petal and the White belongs to Garai and, to a lesser extent, O’Dowd. I have watched the English actress seemingly grow up on-screen, and I haven’t always been a fan. Though I love I Capture the Castle (Tim Fywell, 2003), I freely admit that Garai’s central performance is sometimes unpolished, but she has consistently gotten better in everything she has done, from Angel (François Ozon, 2007) to The Hour (2011-present). I don’t wish to be so gushy, but she really excels as Sugar, particularly in presenting her as a confident and pragmatic woman who starts out with ambiguous intentions but eventually earns our sympathy completely by miniseries’ end. It’s a bravura performance. As for O’Dowd, it is strange to see him in a non-comedic role, and in a costume drama to boot! I almost always find him a likable (OK, adorable) countenance, but because his character develops negatively, he gradually becomes less and less attractive. William is pompous, sexist, vulnerable, and brutish.

I haven’t read the book (all of its 800+ pages), so I cannot comment on it, but The Crimson Petal and the White reminded me of certain classic works of English literature and their own screen adaptations, including Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and pretty much anything by Charles Dickens, for it is a coming-of-age story about upward mobility (albeit centered on a woman who doesn’t achieve it). The comparison to Jane Eyre is obvious enough: our heroine enters a household to work as a governess for the child of her lover; who cares if she’s a prostitute and knows the mad wife already exists? William is no Rochester. He’s more like Alec from Tess, as he throws out the woman he seduces and impregnates. Through displays of moral courage and indescribable suffering, Sugar, like Tess, is redeemed. And let us not forget that the title comes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal,” which at one point Sugar reads aloud to her charge. I am no expert on poetry, but I think its stanzas speak to the dualism of Sugar’s and Anges’s lives.

The miniseries, and presumably Faber’s tome, is undoubtedly feminist, as it deconstructs how prostitution manifests in many different forms. And I don’t just mean as a comparative analysis of the various hierarchical venues that Sugar inhabits (i.e. the brothel and seedy taverns, the kept apartment, and finally the family home where she works as a governess and serves as William’s mistress and secretary). The Crimson Petal and the White, as adapted by Lucinda Coxon, makes clear that marriage is also a kind of prostitution, and this point is explicitly made through the juxtaposition of Sugar’s and Agnes’s individual experiences.

Whereas Sugar is sexually mature, having been pushed into prostitution at age 13 by her own mother (that’s right, Mrs. Castaway herself! but don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled anything you don’t learn within the first 80 minutes) and gained years of experience in giving men exactly what they desire, Agnes is sexually immature. She is locked in a young, almost prepubescent state, signified by her blonde ringlets, constant nightie-wearing, and, most importantly, fevered anorexia, which curtails her regular menstruation. On top of it all, becoming a mother eight years prior profoundly scarred Agnes’s psyche, so much so that she cannot accept that she ever gave birth in the first place. Thus her postpartum depression is so severe and permanent that William ensures that Agnes never sees their daughter, Sophie (Isla Watt), whom he keeps in another part of the house. Dr. Curlew visits Agnes weekly, using physical examinations as a pretense for violating her body. Ascribing a poor and poorer prognosis surely keeps up appearances, but it is also accurate. Agnes must get worse before she can ever get better.

Long before William set Sugar up her in own flat, she shadowed the man she did not yet trust, to his work and his home. (How ironic it is that he should own a soap-making factory, given his indiscretions.) One day, when Agnes looks out the window and finds Sugar on the street, staring back at her, Agnes becomes convinced that the stranger is her guardian angel come to rescue her (the small feathered wings stitched onto Sugar’s leather jacket help lend this impression). Once William confides in his mistress that his wife is having such delusions (obviously unaware that Sugar is Agnes’s “angel”), Sugar begins to interact with Agnes, either from a distance or on the condition that Agnes not look at her face. Things come to a head when William employs Sugar as Sophie’s governess and the women come face-to-face, usually when Agnes is in distress.

A shut-in from society, Agnes looks out her window and looks for her guardian angel, whom she doesn’t know is actually her husband’s mistress. Image courtesy of http://www.isserleylovesbooks.tumblr.com.

Out of pity (not jealousy), Sugar comes to Agnes’s aid and plots Agnes’s flight in the middle of the night. By this time, William has turned inattentive and cruel, and so I view Sugar’s planning Agnes’s disappearing act as one made out of female solidarity. Perhaps Sugar once wanted to replace Agnes, to bear William the son and heir he always wanted, but it’s clear that William’s raping Agnes one evening, to Sugar’s horror, encourages her to break Agnes out of the prison that is her marriage, which has traumatized her for over eight years and caused her to lose her mind. Thankfully, Agnes flees just in time, before William and Dr. Curlew have her committed. While letting a mentally disturbed woman loose unto the world may be inadvisable, Sugar’s determination to help is unambiguously romantic, possibly even an expression of her own desire to escape. Later, through a case of mistaken identity, William is led to believe he is a widower, and only Sugar knows that the river-ravaged corpse that washed ashore can’t possibly be Agnes because she cut her hair short before departing without a trace. The miniseries ends with no update on Agnes’s whereabouts, again lending a romantic air to Sugar’s emotional and intellectual attachment to Agnes and her gender struggle.

There is never any doubt that Agnes is a pathetic character and therefore deserving of our sympathy. On the other hand, before Sugar fulfills her promise as a guardian angel, she presents a more complex portrait. Having taught herself to read and write, Sugar keeps what she calls a “Hate Book,” which is either a tell-all memoir or a semi-autobiographical novel—it’s hard to say. She fills it with fantasies of exacting revenge on the men who have taken her innocence, and even as she gets to know William she conjures scenes in which she slits his throat or stabs his chest. Although it is clear that these are just her imaginings, the spectator might begin to wonder just what she is capable of. It is only after he takes Sugar away from Mrs. Castaway’s and encourages her to counsel him on business affairs that she begins to see her new client differently (he grants her more space and power than any other has ever done). That Sugar’s livelihood, particularly once William buys exclusive rights to her body, allows her time to write in the “Hate Book” is in stark contrast to William’s fledgling literary career. At Sugar’s urging, he throws himself into his job at the soap factory, choosing to express his masculine identity not through words but through accumulating wealth. More crucially, the “Hate Book” represents an escape, and it is telling that Sugar gives up writing in it as she becomes ever more entrenched in William’s family life, especially as Sophie’s governess. This leads me to the final point of comparison between Sugar and Agnes: it hinges on motherhood.

As I have already described, Agnes is literally unfit to be a mother. Her fragile emotional and mental state won’t allow it, and in her absence, Sophie has been reared by a strict disciplinarian nurse named Miss Cleave (Wendy Nottingham). When Sugar moves into the house and assumes her duties as governess, her predecessor warns that Sophie is a horrible, manipulative child. Nothing could be further from the truth. Within a minute, Sugar understands that she will look after Sophie differently; it’s clear the outgoing woman never gave Sophie a chance and shares William’s view that it is pointless to educate girls (then what does that make you, Miss Cleave, eh?!). In short, Sugar and Sophie form a tight bond, Sugar acting as both the mother Sophie never had as well as the mother she wishes she herself had. In case Sugar’s empathy towards Agnes doesn’t fully redeem her character, her devotion to Sophie does. When they profess their love for each other, it is the only time either one has ever heard those words spoken to her. But then their love is thrown asunder. Late in the miniseries, William casts Sugar out of his home and his life when he learns from Dr. Curlew that she is with child. Desperate, she takes Sophie with her. And that is how it ends.

Sugar and Sophie. Image courtesy of http://www.neovictorianthoughts.wordpress.com.

I am not crazy about Sugar’s kidnapping Sophie. I feel this way not only because she has committed a crime, but because this conclusion reaffirms that (even a fallen or, in Sugar’s words, “pushed”) woman’s role is as mother. Perhaps this is too harsh, given the emotional and psychological torment that biological motherhood bestowed upon Agnes, which was aggravated by the men’s sexual mistreatment of her. After all, she abandons her child forever when she makes way in the night, so being a mom isn’t for everyone. Moreover, I sure am glad that The Crimson Petal and the White doesn’t end tragically, with Sugar dead, say, and by William’s hand no less. In fact, I rather like the actual terms through which Sugar and Sophie’s escape takes place. Sugar tells Sophie to pack for an “exploration,” thereby echoing an earlier scene in which the budding cartographer Sophie asks if she can grow up to be an explorer. “I don’t see why not,” Sugar, ever the retroactive feminist, tells her. Sophie, who at age eight understands she is a second class citizen by virtue of her sex, assumes then that she will only be able to explore places that men do not or will not go to. How can I argue with this kind of language? While technically Sophie won’t be as materially well off as if she were still at home, there is no denying that she will be better loved and raised by Sugar. It is also noteworthy that in the final scene, as they wait for a train to take them far away, Sugar begins to write again, this time on a new pad of paper (the wind blew away pages from the “Hate Book” in their escape and they wind up in William’s befuddled possession).

I didn’t have much use for the subplot involving a tentative romance between Henry Rackham, William’s older brother, and Mrs. Fox of the Rescue Society. It does, however, serve to show that men are so easily crippled or undone by their (repressed) sexual passions. (Henry cannot reconcile his lust for an ailing Mrs. Fox with his desire to become a clergyman and so dies in a fire while fantasizing about her.) Women, on the other hand, are stronger and more resourceful, as evidenced by Mrs. Fox unexpectedly making a full recovery from consumption. As Dr. Curlew’s sister, she also points out how members of the same family can be advocates of diametrically opposed causes: he devotes his time to molesting his female patients while she selflessly labors to rehabilitate women and girls away from their previous lives of sexual exploitation. If only she knew of her brother’s misdeeds.

The Crimson Petal and the White isn’t only graphic in terms of representations of sexuality, it doesn’t pull punches when it comes to bodily functions either. That is, it doesn’t shrink from showing us what bathing, going to the bathroom, and miscarrying might have been like for women in the late nineteenth century. In fact, the scenes in which Sugar, having lost all hope in a future of wedded, familial bliss with William, fails to induce an abortion, first by administering chemicals and next by flinging herself down the stairs, are particularly harrowing. Later, when she hemorrhages at William’s soap factory in front of Sophie, it is a truly gut-wrenching sight. But there still is a sense of relief. And this is all of a piece with the filmmakers’ commitment to impressionistic realism. I know this might sound like a contradiction in terms, but I use “impressionistic” to clarify that the brutal realities of Sugar’s and William’s Londons are filtered through her unique perspective, steeped in abjection and ambition. Also, there is something refreshing about Sugar’s scars, undoubtedly the result of abuse at the hands of her former clients, always being on display, along with patches of irritated skin and her chronically chapped lips. It reminds us that living is hard, and this is especially the case for the sexually exploited.

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One thought on “Long Take: The Crimson Petal and the White Makes for Compelling Feminist Melodrama

  1. Thank you for the depth of your insights, I wanted to discuss this after watching it.

    It is clear that “irony” and polarity are key themes within this beautiful study; a boy in the brothel named Christopher who has never heard of Christmas; the prostitute who transcends herself, lips chapped from pleasuring men are purified by the time they lovingly kiss a child’s cheek; the angelic Agnes in a noir fascination with death; the angelic assistance the mistress provides to the wife; and how William’ own innocence, his loving desire for his wife, an unwittingly contributes to her “madness”.

    Having yet only seen the first two hours, this study on innocence vs. Ignorance is compelling, and it is satisfying that Sugar and Agnes’ characters do develop towards empowerment despite the limitations of circumstance.

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