Movie Review of A Harlot's Progress (2006)

by JoHarrington

Was there a real 'harlot' behind William Hogarth's famous series of paintings? This gripping period docudrama tells her tale.

Mary Collins is a young girl newly arrived in Georgian London, and instantly lured into prostitution by a pimp.

Watching her tragic story unfold is a poor printer with a gift for realistic art. He is determined to capture her tale, at every step of the way, with a series of scenes on his canvas.

The artist's name is William Hogarth and Mary Collins's progress is that of a harlot. Now where have we heard this before?

In 18th century London, William Hogarth broke the mold. All around him British artists were drawing portraits of the aristocracy or else dark, historical landscapes, in the style of the old Masters of Europe.

Hogarth dared to do something different.  Moreover, he devised a whole new way of mass-producing his art, so that thousands could own a copy.

A Harlot's Progress became a story told in six parts. It drew upon real people working the streets and boudoirs; and depicted, in unflinching satire, the crimes of those who turned a blind eye or used them.

A qualified engraver, Hogarth then etched his paintings onto plates and sold his art as prints.

But was his heroine a real prostitute?  This movie not only imagines that she was, but tells her story with shocking context and real pathos.

Self-Portrait with his Dog Trump by William Hogarth

A Harlot's Progress on DVD

Zoe Tapper and Toby Jones star, but the standard of supporting cast is very high too.

What is 'A Harlot's Progress' About?

Just like the art itself, this period drama follows the story of a girl lured into the sex trade with all its terrible consequences.

Those familiar with Hogarth's work can already guess the plot of this movie.

It uses the six eponymous paintings as its framework, but adds much more detail, scandal, intrigue and possibilities.

Mary Collins arrives in London from York. She is immediately lured into a brothel by infamous procuress Elizabeth 'Mother' Needham.  Amongst the clientele in the downstairs tavern are two men who aren't there for the sex. 

William Hogarth is a penniless artist obsessed with the idea of innocence on the brink of corruption. His friend and author Henry Fielding is just there as company. As Mary Collins enters through the door, Hogarth knows that he's found his muse.

He sketches her there and then, before dispatching the more out-going Fielding to initiate contact with the teenager.  She's naturally flattered, but he can't save her from her situation. He hasn't the money to set her free.

A Harlot's Progress Plate 1

Fresh from the countryside, a young girl is tricked into prostitution. Behind her, a priest ignores the blatant scene, while prospective clientele fondle themselves in anticipation.

From that first meeting, Mary remains fascinated by Hogarth and his talent. When her fortunes rise, as the kept woman of a wealthy aristocrat, she even hires him to paint her portrait properly.

But her comfortable circumstances already conceal a dark price to pay; and it cannot last. As she explained to the artist, few have his talent, but the coaches from the country bring new girls with her skills every single day.

Their professional interest evolves into real friendship and Hogarth goes on painting, until the very bitter end.

A Harlot's Progress Plates 2-4

From concubine in a boudoir, through destitution as a common whore, into Bridewell Prison, these snapshots of a life tell the harlot's tale.

The movie doesn't just tell Mary's story, but that of Hogarth and his wife Jane too.  We see the pressures upon them, as a counter-point to why he doesn't just rescue Mary from her squalor and harsh treatment.

Established artists ridicule his subject matter; and just about everyone tries to steer Hogarth back into the groove of drawing banal portraits of aristocrats instead.

But the artist emerges as a rebel with too much passion and social conscience to follow their rules.

The 'To Stare' Scene from A Harlot's Progress (2006)

The quality of this clip isn't brilliant, but it gives you a glimpse of one of the prettier scenes.

Was There a Real Mary Collins?

Hogarth never actually said, so there is an intriguing possibility that these scenes did play out in reality.

Hogarth is said to have been inspired in his series by a real person. 

The second picture shows a courtesan, who he was commissioned to draw. He apparently mused then upon her earlier and later life, which became A Harlot's Progress.  There is no indication, in reality, that he followed the same woman for the rest of her life.

However, every other person in his paintings is real.  For example, there really was an Elizabeth Needham, known as 'Mother' Needham, who procured girls for prostitution. She was sentenced to stand in the pillory twice.

The first time, magistrates allowed her to lie down in front of the pillory, with an armed guard around her for protection. That didn't stop the crowd pelting her with missiles though. She was effectively stoned practically to death, then died of her injuries before she could face the pillory for a second time.

Her image was widely circulated at the time and Hogarth blatantly placed her, in her role, in the first scene in A Harlot's Progress.  He was painting that series in the same year as 'Mother' Needham was killed.

Hogarth called his 'harlot' Moll Hackabout. Moll is both short for Mary and a colloquial term for a prostitute. But it also recalled one of the best-selling novels of the time, Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe. The heroine of that book also got by on her womanly charms.

The surname used would have been equally recognizable by 18th century society. Kate Hackabout was a prostitute, whose brothel was broken up by Sir John Gonson in August 1730. He is the magistrate depicted doing exactly the same to Moll's disorderly house in the third painting.

Kate was arrested in reality and consigned to jail.  Her brother Francis Hackabout was hanged at Tyburn, as a highwayman, in the same year. All of this was recent news, when Hogarth was painting A Harlot's Progress.

There was no real Mary Collins, but there was Kate Hackabout. Could she have been his muse as shown in this movie?

Elizabeth Needham, also known as Mother Needham, was an English procuress and brothel-keeper of 18th-century London, who has been identified as the bawd greeting Moll Hackabout in the first plate of William Hogarth's series of satirical etc...
Sir John Gonson was a British judge for nearly 50 years in the early 18th century, serving as a Justice of the Peace and Chairman of the Quarter Sessions for the City of Westminster. Gonson was a supporter of the Society for the Reformat...

Do You Think That A Harlot's Progress was About a Real Person?

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Yes, Moll Hackabout had to be real, because...
Jasmine on 07/09/2012

I haven't seen this movie, yet (which is strange because I love costume films). The clip and the wizz certainly aroused my interest!

Books About Hogarth and His World

Buy these studies to learn about William Hogarth as an artist and the 18th century world in which he lived.

Modern Day Soundscape and Great Filming

The story might have been set in the 1730s, but the sounds were firmly in the 21st century.

Something that I absolutely adored about the movie A Harlot's Progress was the way that sound was used.

This is a highly unusual thing for me to comment upon, as my partial deafness means that I generally dismiss the aural contribution. The fact that sound stood out for me is testimony to its powerful impact.

While the scenes are definitely 18th century period drama, there are occasional sound effects which are anything but.  For example, stage-coaches queued up in a busy street had a backdrop of modern car-horns and the roar of revved engines. 

It really worked!  It shouldn't have, but it did.  It conveyed better than visuals alone how it felt to be stuck in that traffic jam.

Better still were the voice-overs. They sounded like snippets from news programs, with anchor men and women describing 18th century conditions as if they were happening right now.  This device was used sparingly enough that it maintained its shock value every time it occurred.

As for the cinematography, it was apparent that there wasn't a huge budget here. Unless paintings were used, there was a lot of close filming in tiny sets. But that was fine. It all added to the claustrophobic atmosphere, which would have been apparent in reality anyway.

I loved the way that Hogarth's paintings came to life, then continued to play out on the screen. It was really well done.

In keeping with the shock value of the soundscape super-imposing the modern day upon the past, there were some typeset facts dispersed amongst the scenes. They were short, poignant and helped contextualize what was being seen.

I'm an historian, so I never tired of reading them! Also, as I knew nothing about Hogarth and his paintings, it helped draw attention to many of the details in them.  It certainly left me with a wish to learn more and see that artwork for myself.

An Extended Clip from 'A Harlot's Progress' (2006)

Again the quality isn't brilliant, but this YouTube video highlights many of the features that I mentioned above. It captures events as they happened around the fourth painting.

Brilliant Casting and a Bechdel Test Pass!

I'd given up hope of ever seeing the latter, though this movie only just scraped through.

A Harlot's Progress had a cast-list which reads like a mini Who's Who of British actors. Familiar faces cropped up in cameos throughout the film.

Toby Jones and Zoe Tapper are believable and compelling as Hogarth and Collins. I cared about both of them from the outset and I didn't wander off into imagining them in other roles.  Job done.

I have to reserve my greatest accolade for Sophie Thompson, in her role as Jane Hogarth. She had plenty of lines, but it was her performances in the backgrounds of scenes, which really drew the eye. I found myself watching her, when I should have been paying attention to her husband.

As for the Bechdel Test, there were plenty of women named and they did have conversations. It's often the last part which lets a movie down - do they talk about anything but men? 

It's tenuous here.  There are conversations which revolve around art (which Hogarth has painted, hence it's indirectly about a man); and prostitution (where the clients are all men, therefore it's still about what pleases them).

However, Needham and Collins briefly talk about the journey from York.  In two different scenes, Collins speaks about her own well-being, first with Needham, then with Jane Hogarth. They might be short lines in blink-and-you-miss-it scenes, but they are still conversations between two named women, which aren't about men.

A Harlot's Progress scrapes a pass on the Bechdel Test accordingly.

Three questions are asked of each movie. They are so simple that it would be harder to fail than pass. They examine the role of females in that film. Nearly half fail.

A Harlot's Progress Plates 5 and 6

It doesn't end well for poor Moll Hackabout...

Final Words on 'A Harlot's Progress' (2006)

A fascinating insight into a world which was, or very much could have been.

I watched this movie without any knowledge about William Hogarth, nor even his famous art series. The first thing I did after the credits rolled was to go and discover more (or, at least, how true the story had been).

It's a fairly long movie, at one hour 40 minutes, but I didn't notice that time passing. I was glued to the screen and totally lost in the storyline from start to finish.

Despite the subject matter, the sexual acts were implied or heard rather than seen. In many ways, the art itself was more revealing than the film.

I would recommend this movie.  It can't be used as a true historical account, but that wasn't what the makers were aiming for anyway.  It's an intriguing depiction of what may have happened, with plenty of artistic license along the way.

That said, a surprising amount of facts actually did correspond with reality.  It might have been after all.

Grab a Cheaper Version of a Hogarth Print on eBay

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Updated: 03/19/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 07/10/2012

I really enjoyed it! Like I said, it was all new to me, so it was even more fascinating.

Kari on 07/09/2012

Oh wow that sounds like a really awesome movie. I'll put it on my bucket list to watch.

JoHarrington on 07/09/2012

I'm glad that you are, because then we'll get an article about Hogarth out of you and I get to learn more about him! :D

BrendaReeves on 07/09/2012

Okay Jo, now I've got to watch this. Thanks for the article.

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