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‘The Trial of Christine Keeler’ Review: Drama About a British Scandal Gets Stuck In the Headlines

Overstretched at points, this HBO Max import still gets plenty of help from a James Norton performance and a real-life inspiration that crossed many corners of early 1960s Britain.

The Trial of Christine Keeler John Profumo

“The Trial of Christine Keeler”

BBC

Watching “The Trial of Christine Keeler,” it’s clear why the show’s namesake tabloid-fodder scandal would have captured an entire nation’s attention. An affair between a young aspiring model and the UK’s War Secretary became a flashpoint for racial, sexual, and class politics of the day, ripe for manipulating fears and assumptions about Where the Country Was Headed. As a series, “The Trial of Christine Keeler” lays out plenty of the relevant particulars, giving a certain level of context to the headlines that emerged from a series of connected court proceedings. It’s a dramatization (now available on HBO Max after airing on the BBC last year) that doesn’t glean as much as possible from this saga, but it still ends up as a watchable drama about intertwined, doomed fates under public scrutiny.

That writer/creator Amanda Coe puts forward Christine (Sophie Cookson) as the title character is a clear choice. Even though the series withholds certain details of her past from those unfamiliar with the case, there’s a real attempt here to not let Christine become defined by any single choice. Though the series does allow its own time with government minister John Profumo (Ben Miles), the pair’s romantic involvement is not the sole focus. He becomes one in a line of Christine’s acquaintances who become targets of media and law enforcement scrutiny. After each stage of her time in the national spotlight, Christine regroups and is forced to change herself. Sometimes, it results in a newfound sense of assertiveness to control a narrative that she was never given ownership over. Other times, she slides closer to self-sabotage as a means of escape.

Many of those threads intertwine with the fortunes of Dr. Stephen Ward (James Norton), a chiropractor with an increasing list of well-to-do clients looking for extramarital trysts in addition to a relief from back pain. Along with the carefree exploits of Christine’s friend Mandy (Ellie Bamber), this series of whirlwind encounters plays out in flashbacks while both Christine and Profumo become grist for the gossip mill in the show’s present day 1963.

The Trial of Christine Keeler HBO Max

“The Trial of Christine Keeler”

BBC

Christine’s story ends up being one that encompasses myriad aspects of life in 1960s Britain and abroad. Her past romantic partners become a key part of trial proceedings as both prosecutors and passersby use her relationships as a means to stoke racial animosity. Both the police and the press are portrayed as institutional behemoths eager to spin Christine’s story to suit their own ends.

While “The Trial of Christine Keeler” has all the early-‘60s trappings that usually come with stories that signal a coming cultural tidal wave, there’s a checklist aspect to how the series moves through this overview. Right down to someone reading a headline outlining the ongoing Cuban Missile Crisis, there’s so much narrative housekeeping to be done here that there’s barely any time for the most illuminating downtime moments. Once the show gets past introducing every element that becomes relevant in the eventual trial, that’s where the show only starts to come alive.

The implosion of Profumo’s professional and marital lives hits every mark, too: the attempts at reconciliation, the public denials, the behind-the-scenes attempts to save face. None are poorly executed, but the show seems tethered to going through this familiar progression of stern condemnations and grave conversations. Part of Profumo’s arc of frustration is coming to terms with why he got caught at the center of this vortex and not any of his associates who also assumed that their positions of influence would buy all the discretion they needed. By the time he has a chance to look beyond the circumstances of his predicament, it’s already too late.

Miles stays at a steady remove, not really breaking from Profumo’s emotional discipline. The series makes a point to show how Christine takes on a similar even-keel demeanor during their relationship, whether it’s her choosing to adapt to his desires or him shaping her as his ideal. When separated from those flashbacks, Christine’s life is a seemingly endless parade of tumult. Cookson manages to navigate the many ways Christine’s stretched by people looking for financial or cultural gain from being in her suddenly valuable inner circle.

The Trial of Christine Keeler HBO Max Mandy Stephen

“The Trial of Christine Keeler”

BBC

Amidst this chaos, Norton’s fascinating turn as Stephen Ward might be the series’ most memorable component. Putting on a charm offensive to ensnare all comers, Stephen is portrayed as an indulgent social climber and unapologetic pleasure-seeker. And yet, even with plenty of tender moments of understanding, Norton lets through the occasional crack in that veneer to indicate his social enterprise played into an inherent power imbalance. Despite what may have been his best intentions, his self-maintained economy of connections was not without its price. This is Christine’s story, but in this telling, Norton helps make Stephen the most dynamic player within it.

That the show has a built-in tale of international espionage running through its DNA and only really skims its surface is an indication of how much these six episodes try to juggle. Throw in Christine’s complicated family history and a handful of centerpiece straightforward courtroom scenes and “The Trial of Christine Keeler” plays out across a trajectory that is tragic at times but rarely strays from where it’s clearly headed from the start.

There are times when “The Trial of Christine Keeler” toys with fully embracing the sensationalism that peppered the public perception of the show’s real-life counterparts. (An opening-episode transition from a bit of bedroom role-play to a group target practice outing gets about as close to that line as anything that comes after.) And the series’ final sequence, both in conception and presentation, is an electric break from the straightforward, of-its-time presentation of so many moments in between. If only more of this show had the visual and narrative daring to take what it posits as a Trial of the Decade and push beyond what’s a matter of public record. But as it is, it still harnesses the innate momentum of the scandal that preceded it and spins a tale that becomes a canvas for whatever you want to bring to help fill in.

Grade: B-

“The Trial of Christine Keeler” is now available to stream on HBO Max.

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