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Encore’s ‘Crimson Petal’ Revives Glory of the Miniseries Genre
September 10, 2012  | By David Bianculli

Encore has decided to bet big on TV’s biggest programming form, showcasing new and classic miniseries, beginning with the new The Crimson Petal and the White – a brilliant beginning.

Based on the dark novel by Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White premieres Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 10-11, and is repeated in full Sunday, Sept. 14 (8 p.m. ET all nights). After that, Encore plans weekly rollouts of lavish productions of some stellar miniseries from that genre’s Golden Age, a lineup that includes Shogun (Sept. 17) and Lonesome Dove (Nov. 19). Smart, smart, smart.

And the whole effort begins with the U.S. premiere of a 2011 BBC-Canadian co-production that, hour for hour and performance for performance, beats out any new TV series served up by the networks this fall.

Set in 1874 London, The Crimson Petal and the White stars Romola Garai as Sugar, (left) one of the favored prostitutes at a seedy brothel tucked away in one of the scary, labyrinthine Dickensian back alleys.

Basically, she’s the 19th-century equivalent of Jane Fonda’s call girl Bree Daniels in Klute – a woman who shoots bored looks over the shoulders of the men she services, and whose contempt for them runs dangerously deep.

Sugar is, by no means, as sweet as her street name. She’s writing a “book of hate,” in which she describes gory, gruesome revenge fantasies she plans to enact on the men she feels have wronged her and her kind. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, she’s not.

Much as she hates men, Sugar also hates her life, and those around her, except for a few confidantes and protectors at the brothel (including a flinty madam, with a piercingly perfect Cockney accent, played in a small supporting role by Gillian Anderson, below, left). But one of Sugar’s clients, a meek, needy gentleman who initially identifies himself with a false last name, provides a potential way out.

William (played by Chris O’Dowd) is a man with a different class of problems, but plenty of them. He has ambitions of being a writer like his posturing society friends, but hasn’t gotten published. His father runs a perfumery business, but the son initially wants no part of it. William’s wife, Agnes (played by Amanda Hale, bottom), has descended into mental instability that may lead her to Bedlam, and neither the husband nor wife wants anything to do with their young daughter.

Lucinda Coxon’s four-hour, two-night teleplay adaptation of Faber’s bestseller is as smart and subtle as Marc Munden’s direction. Relationships reveal themselves slowly, and thus quite surprisingly. And Sugar’s manipulations often are amusing at the same time they’re impressive: During one early round of lovemaking with her well-heeled client, she keeps screaming out his name, which she suspects is fake, just so his ego will drive him to reveal his actual last name – which he does.

As Sugar’s life becomes more intertwined with that of William and his family, her circumstances change remarkably, from squalid city London to the lavender fields of William’s perfume business (top photo). It soon becomes clear she has the potential to act as a healing force not only on the smitten William, but on his family as well — and they on her.

But to someone who’s spent years writing entries into a “book of hate,” is that even part of her true motivation?

In The Crimson Petal and the White, there’s no telling what will happen next, and no guarantee that any character will live from one installment to the next. It’s one of the major strengths of the miniseries form, and this Encore presentation takes full, fabulous advantage.

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