by Allan Fish
(UK 2011 236m) DVD2
The City of Dreadful Night
p David M.Thompson, Steve Lightfoot, Greg Dummett, Ed Rubin d Marc Munden w Lucinda Coxon novel Michel Faber ph Lol Crawley ed Luke Dunkley m Cristobal Tapia de Veer art Grant Montgomery, Ussal Smithers cos Annie Symons make up Jacqueline Fowler
Romola Garai (Sugar), Chris O’Dowd (William Rackham), Shirley Henderson (Mrs Cox), Amanda Hale (Agnes Rackham), Mark Gatiss (Henry Rackham Jnr), Gillian Anderson (Mrs Castaway), Richard E.Grant (Dr Curlew), Tom Georgeson (Henry Rackham), Claire Louise Connelly (Janey), Blake Ritson (Bodley), Katie Lyons (Clara), Liz White (Caroline), Elizabeth Berrington (Lady Bridgelow), Isla Watt (Sophie),
“Keep your wits about you. This city is vast and intricate and you do not know your way around. You imagine from other stories you’ve read that you know it well, but those stories flattered you. You are an alien from another time and place altogether. You don’t even know what hour it is, do you?” It’s an opening narration to command attention, to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention like school children upon the arrival of teacher. It accompanies a sequence that has been described by some as resembling a laudanum induced nightmare and yet notice the person, for is much of that sequence not shot in subjective camera. The critics are right to point out the drug-induced, shallow-focused haze in which much of the action takes place, as if entirely shot in front of gaslights playing tricks with the eyes. The camera, prowling like a restless disembodied spirit, leads you quite literally by the hand, like Cocteau’s mirror walk on opium, to a place where you really are like an alien. It plays for the first three episodes like Jane Eyre if Jane was a prostitute and Lowood a brothel.
So we first meet Sugar, 19 year chief attraction at Mrs Castaway’s brothel in the heart of the East End, and who comes to the attention of William Rackham, a soap manufacturer’s son who has failed to make a go of things as a writer and is now all but bankrupt. Meeting Sugar she takes him back to Mrs Castaway’s, but he passes out drunk, but she gives him a release in the morning before sending him on his way. He wants an escape from his marriage to a woman by now so far gone into a state of fragile madness she doesn’t even admit that they had a daughter eight years previously, and whom she has not met since her birth, despite living in the same house. Emboldened by Sugar’s out of the ordinary intelligence, he makes a go of his father’s business, but this leaves less time for Sugar and he suggests she take up the position of governess to their daughter. But William’s wife thinks Sugar is her guardian angel come to take her to the next world.
Crimson is a drama that is a masterful sum of its exquisite parts, from the other-worldly photography to the perfect set decorations and costumes to the stunning ghostly make-up by which Sugar is made to look like a fresh arrival at the mortuary. The adaptation of Faber’s celebrated novel is also right on the money while Munden was the perfect choice of director for such a costume drama, having shown the underbelly of the genre before in Vanity Fair and The Devil’s Whore. Excellent though they both were, Crimson easily puts them to shade. The brave casting proves inspired, with comic actor O’Dowd beyond superb as the tortured Rackham, Anderson an eccentric delight as the monstrous old hag, Gatiss note perfect as the sexually frustrated would-be vicar brother and little Watt so good as the neglected Sophie as to make you hear screams in her silence. And amongst them all, the star attraction in every sense, Garai, tackling easily her most sensual role and carrying it off with almost nonchalant aplomb, cosmetic free and with period detail down to the unshaven armpits, at her best in the voiceovers and alternate world of Sugar’s would-be novel. This is a look at a living hell, where cold meat is tossed into the river to be picked up by the Gaffer Hexams of this world. Yet forget Dickens, let the stench of death wash over you (when they go to the Albert Hall, it’s to hear Verdi’s Requiem), as Sugar murmurs in your ear “you’ve allowed yourself to be led astray and there’s no hope of finding your way back.”