“A descent into a world of lechery and sin, of depravity and vice.”
A Harlot’s Progress is an excellent made-for-British television film that presents a fictionalized backdrop story behind the creation of Hogarth’s work. Hogarth, an eighteenth century artist and engraver created a series of six paintings that were collectively called A Harlot’s Progress and which represented critical stages in the career of a London prostitute. This sequential “moral series” was the first of its kind and revolutionized not only art but also the marketing of artwork.
The official story of Hogarth’s work, A Harlot’s Progress contends that the painter began with painting a portrait of a prostitute and her maid when he had the idea to paint a sequence of paintings charting her “progress” in London. The film, however, places Hogarth in a London tavern when a beautiful, proud young girl named Mary Collins (Zoe Tapper) arrives fresh from the country to begin a life of prostitution.
The opening scene captures the sense of degradation as Mary is paraded around the tavern by Mother Needham (Geraldine James), a nasty old hag, who meets Mary as she alights from the coach. Mother Needham is a painted, notorious bawd who herds girls and their wealthy clients through the makeshift bedrooms of her squalid whorehouse. This London brothel keeper silently offers her new girl up for the highest bidder while bored, sadistic and decadent wealthy men ogle the girl mentally pricing her worth. Hogarth watches the unspoken transactions between Needham and her potential customers, and it’s in the tavern that he approaches Mary for the very first time.
Zoe Tapper portrays Mary with perfection, and the characterization of the Harlot is spot on. Mary comes up from the country with the intention of becoming a prostitute, so she’s no innocent. Since it’s Mary’s intention to become a prostitute, she’s a slightly less sympathetic but far more interesting character than an innocent virgin tricked into prostitution. Yet there’s still something touchingly naïve in her notion that she’s special, and that she can claw her way up into society by laying on her back and selling sex. Prickly and proud, she resists Hogarth’s attempts at friendship, and while she poses as a fine lady, underneath all this veneer of self-assured, confident ambition, Hogarth correctly senses that she’s not as bold or as cold as she appears.
Mary’s “worth” and her circumstances decline with alarming speed. From the taverns, the whorehouses and the prisons of London, she plies her trade as she’s used and tossed aside by pimps and fine lords alike. Hogarth charts Mary’s decline and fall with restrained sympathy and compassion.
A Harlot’s Progress is marvelous–far better than I expected, and fans of BBC costume drama should not be disappointed. Hogarth remains more or less in the background as he chronicles Mary’s decline, and this is essentially Mary’s story. This is not a high budget production, and it shows in a couple of spots. The film, for example, segues into stages of the plot by concentrating on images of Hogarth’s painting, which then come to life.
On a negative note, towards the end of the film, the dialogue’s timing slipped and consequently was behind by several seconds. This became quite noticeable and distracting.
One of the very best aspects of the film is its depiction of the social conditions of the time. The squalor and filth are apparent in this period when life seemed cheap, and in one scene, Hogarth steps over the body of a dead child left abandoned and unnoticed in the middle of the street. But Mary Collins is the centre of this tale–she begins her journey full of pride, but she’s crushed by a brutal system. The film includes a few facts and figures for the times–the number of brothels in Covent Garden, for example. To me, the most shocking fact included is the explanation of how gaolers cashed in on the exploitation of female prisoners by pimping them out to whoever wanted them. This well executed film is directed by Justin Hardy, and some of the images will remain long after the credits roll.