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Hulu's 'Harlots' Is a Sober Reveal of the 18th Century Sex Trade
March 29, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Harlots, which launches Wednesday (3/29) on the streaming service Hulu, is a British period drama quite unlike anything most viewers would expect or would ever have seen.

As the title suggests, it revolves around women who sell sex. But there’s little that’s lascivious and almost nothing that’s sexy about it.

And that’s the point. In 1763 London, where Harlots is set, sex is treated as a commodity, not all that much different from setting up a rickety stand on the street and selling potatoes or hats. Perhaps accordingly, the sex scenes here tend to be neither extended nor particularly graphic.

The most important premise of Harlots flashes on the screen at the beginning of the first episode: In this London, one in five women were selling sex.

As with any item of commerce, some sell it casually. A soldier walks into the market area, sees a woman and they slip around the corner into a semi-private alley where she stands against the wall. He asks how much. She says five schillings. He pays and five minutes later the transaction is complete.

Things are more systematic and slightly better appointed at the house owned by Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton, top).

She offers a stable of available women and has done well enough that she’s about to move to a bigger house in a somewhat more upscale neighborhood.

She has a regular clientele, some of them wealthy aristocrats.

She also has two daughters, the twentysomething Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay, right) and the teenage Lucy (Eloise Smith).

Margaret has no qualms about raising them to join the family business because that’s how they and the family will survive.

Margaret herself, it turns out, was initiated into the life when she was 10, and she was sold by her parents for a pair of shoes.

So Margaret knows about the hard-knock life, and she seems to have long ago resolved any ambivalence about the personal or emotional cost of being in this business.

Still, she has a dream for her daughters: that they might someday become, in effect, kept women, the property of some man wealthy enough so the daughters would not have to work anymore.

Money, not surprisingly, feels like the only aspirational goal in Margaret’s life. Or experience.

Margaret also has a more immediate problem: Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville, right), a rival and somewhat older madam who has a simmering dislike of Margaret and would love to run her out of the game.

Margaret is busted for running a “disorderly house” and fined a hundred pounds, a lot of money and also a cruel joke given the widespread commerce in what Margaret is selling.

But the combination of financial pressure and Margaret’s version of parental angst leads to a situation that starts to border on critical as the eight-part series rolls along.

Needless to say, Harlots won’t be reminding anyone of Victoria or Downton Abbey.

It has the same kind of rich period look and some of the same elegance in the costumes and appointments of the rich.

But the rich themselves exude little elegance. Margaret holds an auction in which she is offering a virgin, and one of her wealthy clients shows up with the promise he will not be outbid. His well-dressed wife beams as he makes this promise, much as she might beam if he were a horseman and were about to bid on a prize thoroughbred.  

For all its trappings of finery, Harlots falls closer to Charles Dickens than to Jane Austen. However casual sex may be bought and sold on these streets, it’s clear that the hardest trick for the Wellses and these other women is finding a way to ever end up ahead.

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