Harlots: EW review
The majestic Samantha Morton plays Margaret Wells, a bootstrapping madame commanding a Covent Garden bawdy-house in 18th century London. Her family is her business. Elder daughter Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a glam courtesan seeking independence. Younger daughter Lucy (Eloise Smyth) has her virginity sold to the highest bidder. (Twice). Hulu’s Harlots is a show about sex workers that wants to be as much about the work as the sex, digging into the financial nitty-gritty of Georgian-era prostitution. One thinks of how, on Sopranos, the grandiosity of mafia iconography was deconstructed into financial schemes and hospital bills.
One thinks, also, of how many episodes of Sopranos had strippers dancing naked in the background just for atmosphere. Harlots isn’t preaching, but you could see it as a soft corrective against the recent Golden Age of Television, where prostitution could become a sexy one-episode subplot for Tony Soprano or Don Draper or any of the chumps on Boardwalk Empire. In Harlots, the women take center stage. Morton’s Margaret has dreams of class-hopping: She wants to leave the grungy, oft-raided alleys of Covent Garden, and open a respectable bawdy house for respectable bawdy people. That puts her in direct opposition to Mrs. Quidley, a cultured madam played by Mike Leigh regular Lesley Manville.
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Quidley is a parody of aristocratic decorum, a brutal-capitalist flesh-peddler selling the dream of courtly love, and Harlots comes to life in the conflict between the two women. The younger generation isn’t quite as interesting, although Findlay gives a trickily compelling performance. Charlotte describes herself as “The Queen of Pretend,” and Harlots compellingly dramatizes the many layers of its central characters’ lives: The roles they play for the men who pay them, the lies they tell themselves, the deep abiding sense that they want something much more than what they have.
That makes Harlots sound like a chore, but it’s admirably lighthearted, and much more kinetic than the typical period piece. The show’s largely played for dramedy and candy-colored history, all pastel set design and elaborate costumes that make everyone look like the Bride of Bowie Frankenstein. But the cheerful casualness defies a tough, battle-hardened heart. “The city’s made of our flesh,” says Margaret. “We’ll have our piece of it.” This is a real showcase for Morton, great in everything since forever, and she sizzles with mad ambition, dreamy passion, and triumphant resistance whenever she’s onscreen. Right now, the show’s execution is a bit slight, but Morton makes you believe in Harlots‘ spirit: Here’s a sensitive show about difficult women, and the society that screws them.