An evening of shorts, courtesy of Flickerfest, even at a lustrous cinema like the Kino in the Sofitel complex off Collins Street, is bound to be a mixed experience because the short film is a form that allows a director to try things out. But James Menelaus Rush’s Tadpoles – a moving evocation of the strangeness and beauty of other creatures from the rapt perspective of childhood – is an expertly composed piece of work, full of feeling and truth. It’s shot with absolute ecomony and elegance by Charles Alexander and shows that Rush is a director of genuine gravity and grace.
If you want television of the very highest order have a look at A Very British Scandal streaming on Prime. It follows in the wake of A Very English Scandal with Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe giving a performance of such absolute savagery and irony that you know you’re in the presence of a great actor, a high comedian doing the other thing as Rex Harrison did in Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours. Its successor A Very British Scandal is not directed by the great Stephen Frears but the central performances by Claire Foy as the Duchess of Argyll and Paul Bettany as the Duke are masterly and devastating in their depiction of two ravaged and ravaging characters. What happens to the slut-shamed Duchess is ghastly but the mutual treachery is extraordinary and the sight of Foy using all those captivating mannerisms she exhibited as the young Queen in The Crown in this scarifying context makes you realise what a goddess of an actress she is: she could play anything from Medea down. And Paul Bettany – remember him with Russell Crowe in Master and Commander? – rises to meet her in a performance which would be effortlessly dry in its timing and elegance and panache if it were not so murderous and so deadly.
Do not, however, be taken in by anything with the world ‘scandal’ in its title. Anatomy of A Scandal from Netflix – whose subscriber base we’re told is sliding – is co-written by that supreme churner-out of variable TV entertainment David E. Kelly, and from early on you get the sense of something a bit appliqué. This is a show which unlike A Very English Scandal and A Very British Scandal will divert you, if it does, in the face of everything you know about realism and probability and (God help us) life.
A Tory politician, Rupert Friend, a long ago member of an Oxford society patently modelled on the Bullingdon Club that Boris Johnson and David Cameron belonged to in their Oxford days is revealed first to have had a relationship with a staffer, Naomi Scott, and then is accused of having raped her in a lift.
The very grave matters Anatomy of a Scandal flirts with the way a young person might flirt with a hookup app are not done much justice in this racketingly silly six-parter which is sumptuously served by the histrionic talent on display while never for a moment being convincing.
None of which is to deny that if you’ll abandon your mind to it you’ll enjoy it if only to see how improbability piled on improbability is made to turn out, at a cracking pace, exploiting the talents of first-rate actors.
Anatomy of A Scandal is one of those TV dramas that shows you characters you first encounter in early middle age being impersonated in their youth by young creatures with a nominal resemblance that gets a bit silly even at its most viable. And then – like a neutron bomb of vacuity – there’s an instance where the supposed physical metamorphosis defeats the intelligence because it’s so silly.
Notwithstanding this – as the lawyers say when they want to wipe the slate of everything they have just admitted by way of negativity – there is some glittering talent on display. Rupert Friend captures the charm of a bloke who’s always had it a bit easy from the girls. And as his wife Sienna Miller is superb in summoning up the whirlwind of confusion a poised warm-hearted woman –confident and not unforgiving – might feel in the midst of bewilderment and not unfamiliar betrayals. Josette Simon is crisp and brilliant as Friend’s defending counsel.
The knockout, though, is Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame as the prosecuting angel who appears for the Crown. Dockery is a marvel of an actress: sharp, commanding and with, if it’s permitted to say so these days, a strong masculine quality that’s reminiscent of Dame Sybil Thorndike. You could imagine her playing some of the great Shaw roles as if they had been written for her: Lady Cicely Waynflete in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion or (discarding her poshness but not her toughness) as Saint Joan. She is an example of an actor who can channel a very traditional strength in a way which is disconcerting because it comes across as so unusual that it looks contemporary.
Everything about Anatomy of a Scandal looks contemporary apart from the way it takes a nostalgic bath in young male misbehavior. There’s even a sub-plot that involves smoking heroin from a pipe and a blonde tousle-haired lad hurling himself from a height. But so much of the unholy mess of seductive narratological iniquities in this bit of expensive TV fodder boggles the mind because of the sheer precipitous incoherence of the storyline. It’s truer than anyone would readily believe that this treatment of sexual assault plays on several of the leading figures having lost their memories – nothing to do with recovered memory in the disputable therapeutic sense – as well as undergoing total physical transformation in a way that remains unexplained.
Anatomy of a Scandal shows just how over the top expensive, long-form televsion can get. It’s so strange to see actors as fine as Michelle Dockery and Sienna Miller giving their very formidable talents to a story like this.
It does serve as a reminder that the towering achievement of A Very British Scandal – which can make long form television look like the quintessential dramatic art form of the age – remains the exception not the rule.
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