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DVD review: 'The Crimson Petal and the White'

A prostitute in Victorian England attempts to claw her way to a better life.
BY MATTHEW PRICE Modified: October 23, 2012 at 11:25 pm •  Published: October 26, 2012

Romola Garai (“Atonement”) is fascinating throughout “The Crimson Petal and the White,” as Sugar, a prostitute in Victorian England who uses her charms in an attempt to claw her way to a better life.

The BBC miniseries, based on a novel by Michel Faber, was recently released on DVD by Acorn Media.

In the miniseries, William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd) is the heir to a perfume company, but he can't focus on the ledgers: He'd rather be a writer. Cast aside by his father (Tom Georgeson), William can't find solace with his family, either. His wife, Agnes (Amanda Hale) is struggling to maintain her own mental balance, not helped at all by the invasive and debasing medical procedures of the family's doctor (Richard E. Grant).

William seeks out the notorious Sugar, who sees in William a possible escape from her putrid conditions.

Sugar begins as William's mistress, eventually becoming a business adviser and nanny. Her keen mind and clever insights take William from failed novelist to deft businessman. But Sugar's ambition eventually pulls her into a clash as these disparate worlds collide.

This Victorian England is gritty, dirty, and frequently skirts at the edge of madness. The conditions the prostitutes work in are dank and unseemly. However, even the high-class homes of the Victorian era are presented as places where civility often simply paints over the true brutality beneath. The nudity and violence shown in the miniseries can be shocking in places, but is used to paint a particular picture of the time.

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