As titles go, “The Crimson Petal and the White” has to be the worst invitation one could imagine to watch a miniseries filled with graphic sex, nudity and Victorian-era class distinctions. Setting that aside, this four-hour acquisition — adapted from Michael Faber’s novel — is sumptuously filmed and intriguingly offbeat, yet ultimately fails to deliver a payoff worthy of its come-on. By that measure, Romola Garai as its mysterious, seductive, ethereal heroine proves both a strength and weakness — preventing “Petal,” whatever the hue, from ever fully blossoming.
Like other premium channels dabbling in original fare, Encore has brought some intriguing British offerings Stateside, but thus far few rise to the level of the U.K.’s finer productions.
Garai plays Sugar, a prostitute whose reputed skills are almost legendary. It’s 1874, and she works for a madam with a Dickensian name, voice and Cruella De Vil hairdo, Mrs. Castaway, played in what amounts to a cameo by Gillian Anderson.
Sugar attracts the attention of a privileged heir, William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd, unrecognizable from his “Bridesmaids” role), who yearns not to run his father’s factory but rather to become a writer. Privately working on her own novel, she seduces him, initially, more with words than deeds, speaking of poetry and literature.
Unhappy at home — with a wife, Agnes (a terrific Amanda Hale), both ill and verging on apparent madness — William seeks to purchase exclusive rights to Sugar’s services, and she gradually begins to insinuate herself deeper and deeper into his life.
So far, so good. Yet toward what end? What appears to be a grand scheme, with Sugar playing a sort of long con, never really materializes. And it gives away little to say the twist one at first anticipates based on Sugar’s perceived savvy and William’s foppishness never really comes.
Much of that unfulfilled sense of expectation has to do with Garai, a beguiling actress (also featured in BBC America’s “The Hour”) with faraway eyes, who seldom speaks in anything above a hushed whisper. She instills Sugar with qualities the story (directed by Marc Munden from Lucinda Coxon’s adaptation) never develops.
The mini also makes minimal use of supporting players like Anderson, Shirley Henderson, Richard E. Grant and Mark Gatiss, who add prestige to the marquee, perhaps, but not much to the larger story.
So while “The Crimson Petal” is tough, grim and explicit — and by the last measure provocative, at least relative to those accustomed to Dickens or Austen — the production finally feels unworthy of its length or leading lady. There’s a good tease, yes, but for the investment, not much of a climax.