Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Very English Scandal Is An Overly Hurried But Well-Acted TV Series

A Very English Scandal is...good, but it's one of those pop culture properties I found myself wishing I liked more. It's got a whole bunch of stuff I absolutely love in it, namely actors Ben Whishaw & Hugh Grant, unbelievable true stories and stories about LGBTQA+ individuals, but the resulting end product is more agreeable than unforgettable. Before delving into why exactly that's the case, allow me to first clarify what exactly the scandal of A Very English Scandal is. Back in the early 1960's, Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) was a high-profile member of the British Parliament when he carried out an extended sexual and romantic relationship with Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), one that came to a heated end before the 60's themselves wrapped up.

In the years afterward, Scott keeps creeping back into Thorpe's life, much to Thorpe's anger due to him recognizing that 1970's England would not be kind to the prospect of a homosexual political figure. It isn't long before Thorpe gets, to quote Dr. Seuss, a wonderfully awful idea: he'll have Norman Scott murdered. Something that at first just seems like something he'd spout in a bit of rage soon becomes something more concrete, with this vicious plan for murder being far from the only hardship facing Scott as an openly gay man in England in this era. A Very English Scandal covers a twenty-year span of how Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott impacted each other's lives in frequently too shocking to be true ways.

When the three episode long show is reveling in the absurdity of these real-life events, that's when things tend to be at their most interesting. The second episode, in particular, is a riot in this regard as the story focuses on a hapless assassin being entrusted with the job to kill Norman Scott. Naturally, things spiral out of control and the results are something straight out of a Coen Brothers movie. An extended repulsed tirade against Scott from a presiding judge in a crucial court case seen in the final of the three episodes is similarly enthralling in it's "How is this real?" sensationalism. These real-life events are obviously prime fodder for being re-told in a filmed manner, but it seems maybe the creative personnel involved here were a bit too in love with those real-life events above all else.

The key thing that keeps A Very English Scandal from fulfilling its fullest potential is how the script by Russell T. Davies whizzes right by twenty years of history in the span of three 50-58 minute long episodes of television, there's frequently very little time for the audience or characters to take in supposedly big events that are occuring around them. I kept wanting to get a chance to get to know our two leads better because when they just let the two talented lead actors breathe and inject life into their roles, the results are truly compelling, particularly Ben Whishaw whose phenomenal work here is especially good at depicting Scott's escalating sense of bravura over the course of this story.

Oh, if only A Very English Scandal could dedicate more time to Whishaw's performance or any other actors work, but it's in too much of a hurry getting from one unbelievable historical event to the next. There's enough real-life absurdity to keep one interested in what's going on in this show, but I wasn't fully captivated with it as much as I wanted to. I also have to wonder if the perfunctory but uninspired direction from director Stephen Frears has something to do with how lacking in substance the show tends to be. A Very English Scandal is better than Frears last directorial effort, Florence Foster Jenkins, but the lack of thoughtfulness that dragged down that endeavor is also cropping up here.

Extended contemplations on LGBTQA+ identity and visibility in England in the 1960's and 1970's do give A Very English Scandal overall more substance than Florence Foster Jenkins at least, with the best scene of the entire program reflecting on this concept as Norman Scott delivers a courtroom testimony on him coming forward with charges against Jeremy Thorpe are being done, in part, by him wanting to make sure LGBTQA+ individuals and their anguish aren't ignored anymore by society. It's a powerful scene that Ben Whishaw sells beautifully and there's just enough of those kinds of successful sequences to make A Very English Scandal a solidly crafted piece of television, though it is one that I can't help but wish was better than just "solidly crafted".

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