By Milan Perera, Second Year, English Literature
At a time when the politicians are under intense scrutiny for disregarding the law and order, there could not have been a better time for Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal to arrive. This adaptation of Sarah Vaughan’s novel of the same name deals with politicians who believe themselves to be above the law and the undeniable privilege of being well connected and being born wealthy. Ring any bells?
Starring Michelle Dockery, Sienna Miller, and Rupert Friend, this limited series revolves around a high flying and affable politician, James Whitehouse, who is among the inner circle of the prime minister, who has recently been accused of rape by a female staff member.
In the wake of an all-out tabloid splash out, Whitehouse confesses to his wife, Sophie, that ‘it didn’t mean anything- it was just sex.’ When asked about the frequency of these escapades, he responds about 30 times with unruffled calmness. Is this just one indiscretion as a result of a highly-strung job of being a politician, or has there been a pattern? Has he found himself in this position before?
The drama unfolds with an array of flashbacks to his time spent at Oxford where he was a member of the notorious Bulingdon-type all-boys club, The Libertines. He was a member of the hallowed rowing team. He was dashing, articulate and supremely confident which made Sophie fall in love with him while they were at Oxford. Now they are ‘happily married’ with two children. For the outside world, this is the idyllic family that embodies conservative values.
But, shortly, we are cut back into the present, where the high flying barrister Kate Woodcroft finds an intriguing case in her pigeonhole. She claims to know what happened between the popular MP and the 'easily disposable' staff member who came forward with the allegation.
It comes to light that the fierce legal eagle was assaulted by Whitehouse at Oxford. She subsequently changed her name, her looks, and assumed the hard demeanour to put a shell around what happened.
As a project, this is timely and ambitious in the aftermath of the '#MeToo’ Movement where the abuse of power and privilege is confronted. As the drama slowly unfolds, Sophie is reassured with utterances such as ‘Boys will be boys.’ It goes without saying that this disquieting passivity and anachronistic cliches have prevented victims of sexual assault in a power dynamic come forward.
The drama also focuses on the highly ambivalent realm of perceived consent: ‘she would have wanted it.’ It may be true that the MP had had consensual sex with the staff member numerous times but during the instance in question, she said no. It is still harder for some individuals to grasp that no means no and any previous consent would become null ipso facto.
The cinematography was refreshing and bold, doing an excellent job of manifesting how the characters felt, helping us feel the same queasy uneasiness, and smoothly transitioning between perceived reality and internal dialogue. In this vein, the cast has been excellent throughout this streaming topper.
Rupert Friend who plays the disgraced politician encapsulates the smiling and charismatic sexual abuser with nuance. Michelle Dockery whose previous credits include the period drama, Downton Abbey plays the hard-nosed, bespectacled legal eagle, Kate Woodcroft with panache. Sienna Miller who plays Sophie Whitehouse captures the complexity surrounding the role of the wife of a possible sexual predator with aplomb.
David E. Kelley who produced acclaimed shows, such as Big Little Lies (2017-19), is no amateur; but at times, when almost laughable sequences are thrown into this otherwise serious political-legal thriller, it inevitably confuses the viewer. At the end of the first episode when the police question Whitehouse on the sexual harassment claims, he flies backwards in slow motion, much akin to the villains in Bruce Lee films who are thrown into the air like rag dolls.
The ambitious attempt to infuse magic realism fails to enhance the performance or the drama in any way. Quite the contrary they trigger belly fulls of laughter. But there is nothing funny about sexual harassment. What if a harrowing and twisty high-profile sexual-assault case is undermined by an overblown anime battle?
Anatomy of a Scandal spends six episodes developing a heightened, very dark, fraught legal thriller about a traumatised woman and a powerful rapist who has committed repeated crimes with no consequences. Effectively conveying an important message that hits too close to our own corrupt political realities, at times, the show creates an air of uncertainty: Is it meant to be sweet? Is it meant to be sort of wry and knowing? Is it meant to be darkly humorous? Or maybe darkly triumphant? Ambiguity aside, this is a show certainly worth your while.
Featured Image: Netflix
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