Harlots, Season One (2017)

 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

Georgian society is memorable for many things... the American and French Revolutions, the "madness" of the British monarchy, powdered wigs, and fashionable garments. What is lesser known is it had a roaring sex trade, with many women forced into brothels or living as paid mistresses.

 

Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) runs a successful brothel in lower London. She has guarded her younger daughter, Lucy (Eloise Smyth), fiercely, intent on selling her virginity to the highest bidder, in an attempt to get them into "better digs," in a higher realm of society. Her older daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown-Findlay), is reluctant to enter into a paid position with a wealthy English lord. Despite her mother's assurances that this will secure her future forever, Charlotte shies away from the idea that anyone could "own" her, and dictate all her decisions. Her indecision comes at an unstable time in her mother's life, when a police raid lands half her girls in the dock, and a scurrilous judge fines her a hundred pounds. Little does Charlotte know that her old rival, the scheming Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) is behind it, in an attempt to sabotage her growing success.

 

Forced to pay up or sacrifice her dreams, Charlotte puts Lucy's virginity on the block ahead of schedule, with unforeseen and disastrous consequences. The result is an eight episode exploration of women's lives in an era when their greatest commodity lay between their legs. As a result, this gritty series has few men worth noticing; all of them are either philanderers, scurrilous liars, or abusive fiends -- including one whose latest pleasure of choice includes raping and dismembering virgins! It's a salty, somewhat unsavory look at brothel habits from the Georgian period, based on a book about the notorious "broads" from the period.

 

The costuming is gorgeous and for the most part, surprisingly accurate (minus a few strange wigs here and there); the music is more modern, in an attempt to connect to its viewing audience. The commonplace attitude found here toward sex is a little disarming, but the subplots and characters interesting enough to hold my attention. But, a few things did occur to me, as I watched (sometimes with one eye shut) their lives unravel: a sense of hopelessness in their lives, which perhaps is authentic to how they really would have felt, and a greater anti-men undercurrent. Every man is either deplorable, weak, or forgettable, except for Margaret's lover. And, he disappears for large chunks of time (and co-owns the brothel with her?). I get it, these women are unlikely to run into moral, upstanding, or good men in their profession, but the end result left me in one of my "ugh, men are pigs" moods.

 

Some anachronistic but powerful moments include addressing the idea of women as property; Charlotte calls out her "keeper" in front of a room full of people about his ways of "keeping me in line," which include sexual assault and physical abuse. And, everyone in the room believes her. In a culture where rape is often downplayed, and victims are sometimes encouraged through entertainment not to take it seriously (in terms of consent), it's a nice moment. But it also comes with a lot of other things, which include religious hypocrisy (the only two "Christians" are depicted in a negative light, and one of them gives in to blackmail), copious amounts of sexual material / nudity, a whiff of anti-male sentiment... and getting away with murder.

     
Sexual Content:
Many scenes of sex, in various stages of undress and position; one on-screen rape, with other implications of rape; backside nudity on men and women, topless women; lesbian kisses; extreme instances of cleavage.
 
Language:
Regular use of the f-word, the c-word, various profanities, vulgarities, and crude terms for harlots.
 
Violence:
Women show evidence of physical abuse (bruises, scars, scratches); a man punches a woman in the stomach; a riot erupts in the street.

 
Other:
The only religious individual in the story is portrayed in a negative, judgmental light; she spies and lies for her blackmailer, to avoid her past coming to light.