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Set in London in 1870, and based on the novel by Michael Faber, this mini-series tells the story of Sugar (Romola Garai), an East End prostitute who becomes the obsession of entrepreneur William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd).  William’s wife Agnes (Amanda Hale) is suffering with her mental health, and he finds solace in Sugar’s company, to the point of paying for exclusive use of her services.  As the series progresses, William and Sugar’s relationship becomes more complicated.  Meanwhile, Agnes is desperate to escape the abuse she is suffering at home at the hands of her husband and her doctor (Richard E. Grant), and comes to believe that Sugar is her guardian angel.

I love period drama, and this one certainly did not disappoint, but be warned – Downton Abbey it isn’t!  The seedy side of Sugar’s life, where she makes her home amongst the prostitutes and drunks of London is extremely well depicted, and you can almost smell the urine and vomit.  There is also some graphic nudity (Chris O’Dowd leaves nothing to the imagination in one scene), and some fairly explicit sex scenes.

If that doesn’t bother you and you are a fan of period drama, then you should really watch this series.  The acting is wonderful – Romola Garai continues to prove her versatility, showing Sugar as tough, intelligent, and also compassionate despite her circumstances.  Chris O’Dowd turns in an unexpectedly wonderful performance (unexpected only because it is so unlike anything else I have seen him do).  Gillian Anderson is a minor character in the story, but certainly makes the most of her part as the madam of the brothel where Sugar works.  She was virtually unrecognisable, and a thousand times removed from some of her more famous roles, such as Scully in The X-Files.  As the tragic Agnes Rackham, Amanda Hale is heartbreakingly fantastic.

The story is complex with loads of twists and turns – more happens in each one hour episode than often happens in films twice the length, but it is easy to follow, and certainly never boring.  Sometimes it makes for uncomfortable viewing, but it is always compelling.

Year of release: 2011

Director: Marc Munden

Producers: Daniel Proulx, Lorraine Richard, Lucy Richer, Ed Rubin, Joanie Blaikie, Julie Clark, Greg Dummett, Martha Fernandez, Steve Lightfoot, David M. Thompson

Writers: Michael Faber (book), Lucinda Coxon

Main cast: Romola Garai, Chris O’Dowd, Amanda Hale, Shirley Henderson, Katie Lyons, Richard E. Grant, Gillian Anderson

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Set in the 1870’s, Selina Dawes finds herself imprisoned at Millbank Prison. Selina is a medium who insists that a spirit committed the crimes for which she has been incarcerated.  When Margaret Prior becomes a visitor at the prison, in a role which sees her befriend prisoners and try to offer support to them, she finds herself drawn to Selina, to an extent which seems beyond her control. As their bond gets tighter, events start to hurtle out of control…

Sarah Waters is fast becoming one of my favourite authors.  The story drew me in slowly, but surely.  The main narrator is Miss Prior, and the book is interspersed with short accounts of events leading up to the incident which led to Selina’s imprisonment; these parts are narrated by Selina herself.  Miss Prior has herself suffered a great loss, and illness and depression are part of her recent past.  As much as she helps Selina cope with prison life, Selina helps her to cope with her own life, living with her stifling mother.

The characters are distinctive and believable with human strengths and flaws which were easy to recognise.  All were very well drawn.

The story unfolds beautifully at a pace slow pace, which nevertheless does not fail to hold the reader’s attention.  The ending was a genuine surprise, and one which I could not have predicted – here I could not help but to feel what Miss Prior felt.  It is was a pleasure to be genuinely shocked by a story’s conclusion.

As always, Sarah Waters captures the atmosphere and surroundings of 1870s London, and the setting is brought to life through her words.  This book doesn’t have the Dickensian feel of Fingersmith, nor the bawdy sauciness of Tipping the Velvet (both of which books I thoroughly enjoyed), but is rather more subtle.  It works beautifully and is further evidence to show what a talented writer Waters is.  I found myself wanting to keep reading, as I was eager to know what would happen next.

I would recommend this book very highly – I don’t think you will be disappointed!

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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