The Crimson Petal and the White (BBC2)

There is a stench of hypocrisy in a new adaptation

I'll tell you one thing for nothing: that Michel Faber, he ain't no Charles Dickens. Luckily, though, on the telly, where a decent director and a fine bunch of actors can make the ersatz seem magically authentic (and vice versa), this matters not a jot - and the BBC's adaptation of Faber's bloated novel The Crimson Petal and the White (Wednesdays, 9pm) turns out to be a compelling thing: vivid, nasty and rank with the stench of hypocrisy. Perfect for our times, you might say. As I watched, my disbelief tired of suspending itself only once: when William Rackham (quite superbly played by Chris O'Dowd) told his father that his wife, Agnes, found the visits of her creepy doctor "stressful". Did the Victorians use the word "stressful"? I think not.

The series is filmed mostly in the semi-dark and the camera lurches drunkenly so that, sometimes, we see only parts of the protagonists: sunken eyes, filthy hands, pale thighs. I suppose this is to remind us that the prostitutes who comprise half the story's cast have chopped their bodies into pieces, metaphorically speaking; while one part is sold for a couple of shillings, another (the brain, dextrous fingers) can be up to something quite different. But it also adds to the general sense of malady. Victorian London, teeming and filthy, is deathly sick and so are its inhabitants. Agnes (Amanda Hale), locked in her grand house with the pervy Dr Curlew (Richard E Grant), is as pale and shiny as soap; Sugar (Romola Garai), lurking in her room at Mrs Castaway's (Gillian Anderson), is as mottled and grey as pewter.

By the end of part one, things were set up very nicely. The aspiring writer Rackham, having bedded Sugar, the city's most alluring and elusive prostitute, has returned to the family business - perfume - with renewed, er, vim. At home, his sickly wife is still resisting Curlew's efforts to have her sent to an asylum. Sugar, having hooked William good and proper, has taken a hansom out to his villa and, gazing at it from a corner, has been mistaken by Agnes - ha! - for her guardian angel, come at last. And Mrs Castaway? (Oh, how I love Gillian Anderson - so sly, so convincing - in this role.) She is busy with her découpage. Scissors, paper and a heart of stone: that's her in one, really.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit