A delicious three-part import with a first-class pedigree, “A Very English Scandal” tells the true story of British politician Jeremy Thorpe and his secret lover, played – in a dream pairing – by Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Full of sly humor, poignant commentary and bizarre twists, it’s almost like the perfect marriage of “The Crown” and a Coen brothers movie.
While the performances are a big part of that, the Amazon miniseries (in conjunction with the BBC) also boasts considerable creative wattage behind the camera, with Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Prick Up Your Ears”) directing a script by Russell T. Davies (“Queer as Folk,” “Doctor Who”).
The story begins in 1965, with Grant’s Thorpe sharing the fact that he’s gay with another member of parliament (Alex Jennings, from “The Crown” and “The Queen”), a chap with his own eclectic palate. Still, he warns his friend and fellow “old queen” in regard to the U.K.’s anti-homosexual laws, “I’m not sure any boy’s worth ending up in prison for.”
Thorpe, alas, can’t resist temptation when he meets Norman Scott (Whishaw), a shy country lad who he promptly invites to London and seduces.
Their relationship, however, eventually leads to a falling out, with Thorpe deciding that he needs to marry in the name of political expediency after being elected leader of the Liberal Party in ‘67. He thus casts his lover out, triggering a series of setbacks before the frustrated Scott comes back into his life, demanding money for his silence.
“He can’t even blackmail properly,” Thorpe harrumphs at the relatively paltry sum requested, before embarking on a scheme to have Scott killed, which leads to its own series of complications, miscues, and finally, very public exposure.
The British certainly did have a way with salacious political scandals during this era (the 1989 movie “Scandal,” about the Profumo affair and Christine Keeler, comes to mind), but this spare docudrama possesses a very different tone – alternating between black comedy, melancholy, and a sobering historical reminder of what closeted gay life was like not so very long ago, even for the privileged and powerful.
Grant (in his first significant TV role since the early ‘90s) and Whishaw are sensational, but they’re surrounded by a splendid cast in even smallish roles, including Adrian Scarborough as an imperious barrister and Eve Myles as a woman who comes into Scott’s troubled life. (British viewers have already had some fun with the fact that Grant and Whishaw have been reunited on screen, since the two were both featured in “Paddington 2,” albeit under very different circumstances.)
Working from John Preston’s book, Davies peppers the dialogue with wry little gems, and brings unexpected dimension not only to the leads but the peripheral characters. The three-hour format possesses an enviable economy in telling the story, which easily could have sustained six or eight episodes but probably would have been half as good.
As is, the project briskly covers a 15-year span – shifting from politics to the bedroom to the courtroom with dazzling ease. From whatever angle one views it, “A Very English Scandal” is a very enthralling miniseries, indeed.
“A Very English Scandal” premieres June 29 on Amazon.