The anatomy of a Netflix scandal is an unconvincing view of politics after #MeToo
The saying goes that politics is show business for ugly people. But in Anatomy of a Scandal, a Netflix series adapted by David E Kelley and Melissa James Gibson from Sarah Vaughan’s bestselling novel of the same name, Nobody’s Ugly, Or Even A Little Simple. It’s politics for gorgeous, sulky people with excellent hair and excess caramel cashmere. Even after a sleepless night, they emerge into the dappled Westminster sunlight as if they were in an advertisement for Lancôme or Dior, their faces as spooky as their sheets. “I am terrified!yelps MP (Conservative, I believe), James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), at a crucial moment. He doesn’t look terrified though. Quite the opposite, in fact. Looks like he’s about to stroll down New Bond Street and pop into Burberry.
How bizarre and surprisingly sinister that the most compelling thing about this series is that its plot revolves around a rape accusation; at least 56 MPs are, after all, currently facing allegations of sexual misconduct, having been reported to parliament’s independent complaints and grievances system. Somehow, though, this chastising real-life fact had little effect on me as I watched. I either yawned or rolled my eyes – and sometimes I did both at the same time. Cliches ! Is it because Kelley is an American, and Gibson a Canadian, that in this show you always hear people in a hurry shouting “Taxi! in rush hour traffic? And what of Britain’s trashy central heating and noisy sash windows? Of our stubborn showers and our redundant rolling shutters? The decorators are still in the universe of Kelley’s previous series, big little lieswith its ranch-sized kitchen islands and refrigerators that a woman can lay down in for a few moments if she’s feeling menopausal enough.
The London home of Whitehouse and his wife, Sophie (Sienna Miller), is about the size of a boutique hotel, and pretty much everything in it — with the sole exception of pizza, Sophie serves his privately educated little darlings for supper, which were likely delivered by Fortnum’s – it looks like he’s from Oka, the posh furniture store once owned by Samantha Cameron’s mother. You’ll search in vain for a goofy Ikea bookcase, though that might be because the couple don’t actually own any books, despite the fact that prior to her marriage Sophie was “completely invested in children’s literature” (she wrote a kind of thesis on this subject). Their constituency? We tend not to visit it much, although I think we can safely say it’s not a so-called Red Wall headquarters (unless by ‘red wall’ you mean a moody new Farrow & Ball colour).
But back to the plot, which I’ll try not to spoil for those who haven’t read the book, and who are – even after reading this – tempted to stay with the White Houses until the very last bell. of dividing. In Oxford, James Whitehouse was a member of a catering society called the Libertines, which is the Bullingdon Club (of which Boris Johnson, David Cameron et al were famous members) by another name. So was his best friend Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streatfeild), who is now Prime Minister. We know from some of the craziest flashbacks ever seen on screen that they were pretty badly behaved back then (their drunken antics are straight out of ChicLaura Wade’s brilliant play, which later became the film The club riots, and to which I now refer you if you have a sudden urge to watch fools wasting rivers of Bolly). The club’s gentlemanly (ha!) codes dictate not only that their secrets must be protected, but that the Prime Minister will stand by Whitehouse even when the parliamentary aide with whom he had a brief affair accuses him of the raped in a house in Common Elevator.
But why focus on Oxford? Why do we see so much not only the young Whitehouse, but also the young Sophie, who attended the same university at the same time? And what is the girlfriend from whom, in college, she persists in snatching Anglo-Saxon translations? (Children’s literature, it seems, is one thing, but Beowulf is quite another.) Don’t worry, though. Things are going—hwaet! – will eventually fall into place, just as it will also become clear why the prosecutor in the Whitehouse case, Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery), is so central to the proceedings. Although when I say “fall into place” what I really mean is that they will be linked in such a completely absurd way that you will wonder if you should not try to write yourself a best-seller, perhaps churning it out in the free hour you used to half-heartedly devote to Zoom pilates. Honestly, as the endings go, this one’s up there with Bobby Ewing realizing in the shower that the last 84 episodes (or however many) of dallas were just a long, bad dream, and not even the strange mention of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or a bit of light-hearted lawyer banter behind the scenes in the wig room, can disguise it.
I’ve hinted before that acting is rope. Only one person in this fiasco is good: the ever-brilliant Joshua McGuire, as Chris Clarke, a Downing Street communications chief (McGuire is the next best thing to Tom Hollander lately). Ami, despite all that he obviously takes this thing very seriously, wears a sideboard varnished with an expression everywhere, as does Miller, except when she receives very bad news, in which case she inevitably rushes to her bathroom well arranged to vomit delicately.
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As for Dockery, her performance basically involves a pair of glasses — “I’m very smart!” these mounts insist, in her name—and her beautiful shoulders, very polished and on display at the Delaunay restaurant, where she dines with her former married master, with whom she has an affair. (“Felicity?” she asks him, wondering if she will receive Petit fours later. “In Wiltshire,” he replies, not an understatement for an emotional state, but for his second home.) I’ve seen very few performances less compelling than this; even when our legal eagle is just reading his papers, or applying his mascara, something inside me wants to laugh, which is a little painful under the circumstances. In court, it’s his job to outline to the jury, in detail, the technicalities of what rape entails: speech that should be painfully uncomfortable but sounds, in Dockery best Downtown voice, just like so many insinuations.