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I have to admit, one of the only reasons I watched this is because I'm a huge fan of Romola Garai, but after the first episode I was completely hooked. It's well worth watching even if you don't care at all for any of the actors because everything about it is superb.
The Crimson Petal and the White is based on a neo-Victorian novel by the stupendous writer Michel Faber. The wonderful thing about neo-Victorian works is that they can revisit the Victorian age without being constrained by all the things that the Victorians liked to keep under wraps, like frank sexual talk. This comes in handy in The Crimson Petal and the White which is focused a great deal on sex and sexuality.
The main character is Sugar (Romola Garai, fantastic as always), a prostitute who has been working in the trade since she hit puberty (or maybe even before). Sugar has a deep distaste for men (she's working on a fantasy novel in which she tortures, maims, and kills her clients), but is well renowned because of her willingness to do anything (sexually speaking). She attracts the attention of William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd), a bumbling entrepreneur trapped in an unhappy marriage who is actually attracted to Sugar's mind as well as her body as she is self-educated and extremely literate and they both are well read. The more time Sugar and Rackham spend together the more they become obsessed with one another which leads to Sugar becoming more involved in Rackham's business and Rackham becoming concerned with keeping Sugar to himself.
There is a lot more to the plot than that, but it's a wonderful tale. The aspects of Sugar and Rackham's personalities are set down early, and as the story unfolds we see these aspects play out. Sugar, who is tough minded and hard, is also incredibly smart, has the capacity to grow and change and also to love. Rackham is weak and selfish and these aspects are exposed as he faces difficult decision after difficult decision.
The cast is excellent (special shoutout here to Chris O'Down whom I had previously only seen acting in comedies. He handles the darker material with ease putting to rest that lie about comedians not being able to handle anything but comedy). Beautifully shot and excellent costumes as you would expect from a BBC drama.
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