Amazon’s ‘A Very English Scandal’ Devilishly Tells True Story of Sexual Scandal and Murder Plots
In this age of scandal it’s impressive to see the scale of other naughty happenings from a more conservative time. Amazon’s 3-episode “A Very English Scandal” dramatizes one of the great political dramas of 1960s Britain, when Liberal Party politician Jeremy Thorpe found himself in the middle of a storm involving a gay love affair and subsequent murder plot. While it sounds somber, and much of the story is indeed tragic, this miniseries captures it all with a combination of visual elegance and digging humor. Power is exposed as something that can become ever so absurd.
The saga begins in 1965 with Thorpe (Hugh Grant) sharing an aristocratic meal with fellow parliamentarian Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), recounting a rather unwise fling he initiated with a young stud named Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw). Thorpe met Scott at the home of another British upper class chap, where Scott did housework and cleaned the stables. After taking on a welcoming tone with the young guy, Thorpe found himself sought after by Scott in London, after running away from the farm. Not only did Scott run, he also brought with him correspondence in which Thorpe cheerfully jokes about his secret, homosexual activities. It is a time when being openly gay, especially in politics, was a social kiss of death. Bessell himself is gay and helps Thorpe in covering up their adventures. At his home Thorpe seduces Scott but soon the affair turns sour, as Scott lounges about, becoming a leech while Thorpe begins losing his patience. Finally Thorpe tries to kick Scott out, with promises of helping him get certain documents in order. But as time passes and Thorpe rises in the political scene, he knows he has to make sure his affair and sexual identity must be kept secret at all costs. When Thorpe himself gets married and starts asking for money he believes is owed to him, Thorpe decides the solution might have to be more permanent, and deadly.
“A Very English Scandal” feels at home in the shadowy halls of power and upper class dining rooms. It is directed by Stephen Frears, an elegant director who has balanced abuses of power, the tenderness of friendship and the loneliness of history in films like “The Queen,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Philomena.” In this series he tackles the Thorpe scandal with a biting humor in that sarcastic, British tradition. Yet this doesn’t downplay the magnitude of what’s going on, in fact it magnifies it. Thorpe, brilliantly played by Hugh Grant, becomes a tragi-comic figure, a man obsessed with reputation and power while attempting to still indulge in his own desires. A running undercurrent in the writing is how a scandal of this nature was easily bred in an environment where homosexuality was basically outlawed, where sexual discrimination ran rampant. There are moments where Frears seems to contrast the careful way in which gay men must hide their identities, while macho, heterosexual types openly harass women and flaunt their escapades. Some powerful moments feature gay men of the British upper class seething with rage at how it is common for closeted individuals to kill themselves, or be lynched, yet the system simply ignores it all. Of course this is not an excuse for Thorpe’s own activities. The moment he seduces Scott is brilliantly written. He doesn’t really care for the young worker, he just wants to satisfy his needs but soon learns like Oscar Wilde, that you cannot raise a lover and then expect them to be a docile pet.
As the story progresses this series also works as a completely engaging scandal. The tone can be gossipy, but alluringly so. The narrative becomes complicated in a way where life entraps the characters. Thorpe decides to get married in order to get a rise in the polls, but Scott can of course throw a wrench into such a decision if he decides to go public. But then Scott himself decides to wed, and so both men find themselves in an odd form of personal, mutually assured destruction. When Thorpe begins the plot to have Scott killed the movie avoids sensationalism, and becomes a wonderfully goofy opera where Thorpe’s sycophants in parliament don’t know how to properly plan such a venture, and the other characters pulled into the circle are just as clueless, including the would-be assassins. There is a stinging sort of relevance here, because many of the recent sexual scandals dominating headlines have been about powerful men disgraced by their own, absurd follies. Thinking they could get away with it, they made decisions where the fine art of thinking was simply lost. When Thorpe is taken to trial, he becomes a stripped, pitiful figure, intelligent, but trapped by a discriminatory system and unwise choices when it comes to bedmates.
“A Very English Scandal” is a witty taste of political intrigue and sexual implosion. It tackles the absurdities of modern societies still unwilling to be frank and accepting when it comes to our sexual diversity as humans, yet it is also a stinging study of power and its abuses. Even those on the ivory tower make stupid decisions, while the rest of us watch in awe at the fall.
“A Very English Scandal” premieres June 29 on Amazon.