Throughout human civilization, prostitution has been arguably something of a necessary evil, intentional or unintentional, an institution of erotic bartering between a client and s prostitute for wants of flesh and fortune. For a client, it’s all about releasing his rapacious libido in a brothel, whereas for a prostitute offering a pleasure of the flesh can be a means to a social mobility in a period when women’s place was confined by biological determinism. But that social mobility would be possible with the intervention of Goddess Fortuna. ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ follows a life of an unfortunate prostitute named Mary through the eyes of William Hogarth, an English painter and social critic renowned for choice of his subjects crossing the strata of the social class system for inspirations.
The painter Hogarth chooses Mary as his unofficial muse for various paintings depicting modern moral subjects as a series of picturesque statements of social criticism on the oppressed conditions of the poor whose lives are already determined by their biological and social statuses. Likewise, Mary’s downfall from a beautiful courtesan to a common, over-the-hill backstreet slut is already a foregone conclusion for the nature of the profession. Besides, she’s not exactly cut out for a fine prostitute with artful plans to forward her rank and condition; she has a pride but no courage. She yearns for a polite society, but her frailty of character prevents her from advancing in her career to a mistress of a high-birth man. In other words: Mary chose a wrong job that ruined her life.
The film is said to be based upon a true story with references to the famous figures of William Hogarth and his friend Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones. It gives the veracity of the event with a charge of authority, rendering the story of lachrymose life of Mary emotionally powerful and factually unchallenged in the veneer of historicity. Yet, in terms of objectivity of the stance that the film takes, its view on prostitution in the 18th century London is clearly askew on the side Mary because she is cast as being a victim of the social evil with her purity of the soul torn apart by men’s rampant animalistic sexual desires as presented by all uniformly unattractive and perverted men on screen. In fact, the only pitiful character in the film seems to be Mother Needham, who is mercilessly abused on the pillory for three consecutive days and nights of stoning, defiling, and cursing from the public who were once or twice her clients and neighbors. The sight is sufficient to incite pathos because of her plea for life authentically delivered by the excellent performance of actress Geraldine James.
No one can throw stones at Mary for her life of “sin and depravity” because there’s no one who is immaculately cleared of guilt and sins to judge her character as arbitrator of morals. But then she is responsible for her own life with her own free will to choose to be a harlot. For not all destitute women driven by abject economic conditions are succumbed to the trade of the flesh. Nonetheless, this film is a good period drama that resurrects the ethos of the time with the parlance, habits, and costumes of different classes peculiar to the 18th century, well executed by a cast of classically-trained fine thespians.