A Very English Scandal is the latest film from Stephen Frears, which just happens to be split up into three 56-minute episodes for television. It’s also a return to form after a long string of films that were certainly aimed at the OAP market, such as Victoria & Abdul and Florence Foster Jenkins. Plus it’s by far Hugh Grant’s finest performance to date.
A Very English Scandal tells the ludicrous and darkly comedic true story of Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) who is embroiled in a decades-long scandal involving his gay lover Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw). In the end, it destroys his political career and arguably plants the seed for the destruction of his party in the process. The relationship between the two men started in 1961, and within a few years Scott’s threats started. Homosexuality was still illegal in the UK at the time (it was decriminalised in 1967) so Thorpe had fears about being imprisoned—and also of scuppering this incredibly promising political career, with his role as the youngest leader of any political party in the UK falling to tatters. The threats continued for the next decade, and eventually Thorpe hired a hitman to kill Scott. A long trial by media and in the courts ensured.
Frears, who is chameleon-like with the diversity of the films he has made over the years, is the perfect fit for this material. He can do dark comedy, he can direct thrillers, and he has also helmed plenty of theatrical and television films about British political figures, like The Queen and The Deal. Frears also has a strong track record of having strong performances from his actors, even in his lesser films.
Grant, who I can’t say I’ve ever been particularly fond of as an actor ,is at that point in his career where he can’t pull off playing the dashing posh love interest anymore so he is figuring out that he needs to do more “edgy” roles to survive. Cloud Atlas a few years ago was the turning point. He is pretty much perfect as an incredibly posh political leader with this huge secret to hide. Of course Grant had his own scandal involving a prostitute (although very respectably he totally owned it and didn’t lie) so he probably could relate to Thorpe’s mindset. Ben Whishaw has the easier role, because the real Norman Scott was an outlandish character who would release hilarious press statements. Whishaw is a good enough actor, so it never becomes a caricature and brings real sympathy to the role.
It’s a rip-roaring descent into the world of ’60s and ’70s British politics, with Grant at his most devilish –he had it in him all along but was never offered the chance before. The rest of the cast includes a who’s who of British character actors, like Alex Jennings, Jonathan Hyde etc. It was a very witty script by Russell T. Davies, who is probably best known for kicking off the enormously successful revival of Dr. Who. As with the screenplays of quirky true-life stories by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the juicier bits are almost always true. Frears directs it with an expert hand, and is helped by solid period detail by the production designers and a good mixture of songs, without relying on the obvious hits of the era (probably down to the lack of a soundtrack budget but well-chosen.)
The disc includes a handful of featurettes.