Its oblique title refers to a species of butterfly, but there’s plenty of sulphur emanating from this drama charting the devastating after-effects of childhood sexual abuse. Most of it stems from Mark Stanley’s alpha City trader David Tait, once an abused child, now a man who treats life like a war, each human interaction an engagement to be won or exploited. It’s an arresting performance: steely and clenched, but with a hint of vulnerability. Stanley isn’t afraid to dial up to total bastard when the scene calls for it. Which is often.
What ‘Sulphur and White’ does well is show how the deep wounds of childhood abuse have led Tait to develop this commoditised worldview as a protective carapace; and how well, paradoxically, it serves him in his job. There are great scenes of Tait standing in the middle of turbulent trading floors, coolly scoring big wins and the patronage of his boss and surrogate father figure (Alistair Petrie, brilliantly vulpine). Soon all the greed-is-good trappings follow: fast cars, insane parties and the love of his colleague Vanessa (Emily Beecham, providing a soulful counterpoint). Why get therapy when you can get rich?
The answer comes as the film jags back to Tait’s childhood in South Africa. There, his boozing mum (Anna Friel) and bitter dad (Dougray Scott, persuasively awful) barely notice when he falls victim to a group of local paedophiles. There are heavy-handed visual metaphors involving those butterflies and haloed doorways. It definitely works best when Stanley is on screen and under the self-destructive hex of that past abuse. ‘You’re just me in a better suit’ spits his poisonous, now-ageing father in a standout scene. The scary thought is that he may not be entirely wrong.