Film & Television

New Historical Dramas, Old Familiar Faces

The title A Very English Scandal is perhaps the understatement of all understatements. The story, based on the novel by John Preston, which in turn was based on real people and real (and countless) headlines, weaves together Parliamentary politics, the mod movement of the 1960s, Britain’s upper crusty upper class, and irresistibly salacious details of a secret homosexual affair and attempted murder. Quite simply, the miniseries makes a compelling case that this unlikely “fact is stranger than fiction” story could only happen in England.

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons and My Beautiful Laundrette), A Very English Scandal dramatizes the short-lived love affair between Eton-educated Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe and the much younger waif/dog-sitter/model/fantasist Norman Scott (né Norman Josiffe). After an accidental meeting at a friend’s country home, Thorpe invites Scott to London, where they play house (“Are you my little bunny?” Thorpe coos as he introduces Scott to a jar of Vaseline) for a brief period before Thorpe moves on. Reminiscent of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (which makes the whole “bunny” reference rather more threatening), Scott refuses to be ignored. He writes a detailed letter to Thorpe’s mother and threatens to out his seducer. Homosexuality was still illegal in England and would mean jail time, as well as the inevitable end of Thorpe’s political career. “If anything ever became public,” he confides to a friend, “I would put a gun to my head and blow my brains out.” Instead, the politician hires a band of bumbling idiots to kill Scott. They fail (although Scott’s beloved Great Dane is shot and killed). An attempted murder case eventually comes to court and Scott is able to very publicly confront Thorpe. He admits to the jury that it was never about the money (or even about his missing National Insurance card, a sly running joke throughout). “All the history books get written with men like me missing. . . I was rude, I was vile, I was queer, I was myself.”

A Very English Scandal could have been a straight (no pun intended) depiction of historical events, a poignant story of a gay outsider’s coming of age, or the tragic story of a leader brought down by his own weaknesses. Instead, it is a strange and oddly entertaining mixture of genres. There are scenes that are practically madcap and ridiculous. There are confessions that reveal the sordid secret life and shame of the dignified. And, there is eventually dignity bestowed upon a loose cannon who may well have had some level of mental deficiency. The three hours move quickly, thanks to clear and visionary direction, the excellent script (by Russell T. Davies), and tremendous performances by the two leads: Ben Whishaw as the hapless Scott, and Hugh Grant, going very much against his old rom-com character, as the conflicted and at times truly despicable Thorpe.

Grant, who has aged quite nicely before our eyes, played a far gentler soul in 2016’s Florence Foster Jenkins. He’s come a long way since he bumbled through romances with the likes of Andie MacDowell and Julia Roberts. Gone are the dreamy eyes, tousled hair and earnest, self-conscious declarations of love. Here, his desperation, undeniably real, is deeply buried under decades of denial and unfailing self-interest. He has evolved from a love interest to the kind of rich, dark character whom we love to hate. The actor is becoming ever more interesting, and I greatly look forward to what else we’ll see in this second act.

Then again, I look forward to most of the entertainment that makes its way across the pond and brings with it so many familiar, if sometimes wondrously altered, faces.

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