For a series that features more than a little explicit anal sex, there’s something charmingly proper about “A Very English Scandal,” the Stephen Frears-directed three-part limited series just imported stateside by Amazon Prime. A perfect three-hour binge starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, the series excels at taking a singular and somewhat obscure story and making it universally relatable, all while very much living up to its title.
Written by Russell T. Davies, whose credits include creating the original “Queer as Folk” (and thus giving us the gift of a gay romance between Littlefinger from “Game of Thrones” and Jax from “Sons of Anarchy”), “Scandal” focuses on the alleged affair between real-life figures Jeremy Thorpe (Grant) and a young man named Norman Scott (Whishaw), who are first shown as secret lovers during an era in Britain when living as a homosexual man was illegal. But what happens after Jeremy ends their relationship proves to be far more important, as Norman attempts to expose him and Jeremy reveals the lengths he’ll go to in order to protect his interests.
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The story spans over a decade, and it never once drags, in part thanks to the way Frears brings a quick pace and mod flare to the semi-regular montages accelerating the timeline forward. (Quick shout-out to Murray Gold’s brilliant score, which adds just the right touch.) Just enough attention is paid to all of the insane details that give life to the story, perhaps because they were drawn directly from real events. (Dig into what really happened, and you’ll be shocked by just how little Davies invented.)
Seeing Grant sink his teeth into the role of a lifelong pretender, forever afraid of being exposed even while fully seated in his own sense of authority, proves compelling simply because the signature charisma which made him a romantic comedy go-to in the ’90s has not diminished with age. But here, he’s able to twist it just so, revealing Jeremy as the sort of manipulator whose political ascension and serial affairs are two sides of the same coin — there’s a hiding-in-plain-sight quality which makes him captivating and just a little bit terrifying.
Meanwhile, Ben Whishaw finds every nugget of vulnerability he can in Norman, especially when pushed to extremes, and the result is a treat of a performance. His desperation for a better life remains forever out of reach, and the way in which this sorrow becomes a source of strength for him is the inspiring undercurrent which keeps his story from becoming too bleak. Also, there are many scenes which feature him cuddling a puppy, always a plus.
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There’s a light touch to the material, but a deceptive one, as the wit of the script and charm of the performances mask the real pain and trauma within lives ruined by deception and bigotry. The heart of this story, appropriately enough, is itself in the closet, though every once in a while there’s a moment which makes it clear just how deliberate a choice that is, and Davies really makes his point clear: Being forced to feel completely out of place can inflict searing emotional damage.
One of the show’s most striking pivots comes late in Episode 1, when the focus shifts to the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act, which decriminalized homosexual acts between two men over the age of 21. One of the chief architects of the bill, Lord Arran (played here by David Bamber), is introduced as a charming eccentric who lets badgers run amuck through his country home — right before he then delivers a heartbreaking speech about the men who have died by suicide because of the current state of affairs: “I don’t think it’s suicide, I think it’s murder. They are murdered by the laws of the land.”
But changing the laws doesn’t change the harm done to the human spirit by pervasive bigotry, which we see in Jeremy’s steadfast terror of exposure and in Norman’s courage to be his full self. At its core, “A Very English Scandal” is a very dark and sad tale, but you might not really notice it at first, because it’s so very fun to watch.
“A Very English Scandal” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.