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The call girls who sank a government

May Contain Spoilers

Scandal_23.jpgMichael Caton-Jones' 1989 film "Scandal" begins amidst an atmosphere of gaiety and innocence at the start of the 1960s. Bright, resplendent, sparkling visions burst before our eyes. Soon the tones will become darker. "Scandal" chronicles the multi-faceted sex scandal that erupted in the "you've never had it so good" British Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan's conservative government in 1963.

On one side, John Profumo, Minister for War. On another, Russian spy and naval attaché Yevgeny "Eugene" Ivanov. On yet other sides, hustlers Lucky Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe. In the center circle: 18-year-old Christine Keeler and to a lesser extent 16-year-old Mandy Rice-Davies. The facilitator of this assortment of divergent figures was one Stephen Ward, an osteopath whose own notoriety steered them all toward an inescapable vortex. The charismatic Mr. Ward entered this populated stage as a grand, tragic, chain-smoking puppet master of sexual openness. "Scandal" takes its cue from Ward, the film's moral epicenter.      

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Smoking is continuous throughout the film, and not just for show. The smoke could be a metaphor marking the steamy, smoldering flame of sex and its burning embers, and the slowly-expiring pulse of an enormous political scandal that claimed one character and threatened to suffocate many others who desperately needed to escape for air. The film wears a duplicitous cloak: one sunny, the other brooding, reflecting the tensions between the buttoned-down aristocrats supposedly engaging in secret orgies and the volatile working-classes of 1960s London, just a decade before greater civil and racial unrest that was to come in the capital city. Indeed, "Scandal" more than hints at the racial animosity in England at that time, as more than a few whites, especially those from the working classes, strongly objected to the arrival of blacks in England from the Caribbean in the 1950s and '60s.

Caton-Jones frames the times of this bawdy, sexy mix of politics and vice with newsreel-type film footage from England's early 1960s. The director shows the Swinging Sixties sweeping into the mansions and flats of high society members in England, a self-mocking country often considered a frigid landscape for sexual endeavors. The film's most telling piece of dialogue comes from Stephen Ward, portrayed by John Hurt: "The trouble with this world is that everybody's afraid to enjoy themselves or they're too ashamed to admit it." As if to underscore that sentiment, a character in deep denial declares that he "never laid a finger" on one of the key figures in "Scandal".

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An unmistakable scarlet-colored seven-letter title introduces the film. Then blue-tinted black and white slow-motion archival film of ordinary, conformist life in England unspools, not so much as cool nostalgia as memories before the undressing of innocence. Keeler says, "I'm 18. I want to go out dancing . . . I want to have some fun for a change." The Sixties around the globe would inevitably catch up with England, symbolized by the squeaky-clean quartet of mop-haired men from Liverpool who would slowly but surely give way to London's rambunctious rude boys of rock, the Rolling Stones.

On the political front, the national security of the UK was potentially in danger of being compromised by the intimacies Keeler enjoyed with Profumo and Ivanov, whose Soviet Union just a year prior had been engaged in a blink-first-and-you'll-lose contest with the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. No evidence however, existed to show that any secrets were passed from Keeler to Ivanov. Interestingly enough, in 1963 as the Profumo scandal exploded the conservative British government, cinemas in England were showing the James Bond film "From Russia, With Love." And there are references to James Bond by Hurt's character Stephen Ward, who in fact had a friendship with several officials from the secret British intelligence agency MI5.    

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Overall, "Scandal" is a riveting piece of entertainment, hilarious and heartbreaking. The film packs in many details in a creative way. Visually, the blandness and blue cool of some exterior shots is contrasted with hot-red and orange interiors. Near the film's end these tones will merge, suggesting a change in the sexual and ethical culture of London and the transformation from what had been a three-term Tory leadership of the country during the Fifties and early Sixties into Labour government leadership in 1964.

Flavored with the sublime sounds of John Coltrane, the sonorous smooth of Nat King Cole and the suggestive sonnets of Frank Sinatra, whose "Witchcraft" plays over its opening credits, "Scandal" is a music-lover's paradise. There's music for every taste, ranging from the 1940s through the 1960s. There's Jimmy Cliff. The Beatles. Adam Faith. Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren are heard, as are The Shadows with their 1960 classic "Apache", used to perfection in one scene.

The music punctuates England's and the world's transitions from crises to conformity, historic achievements to ignominy, in the revolutionary 1960s. During the film's sexual engagements, the music is more mod, rock and reggae-flavored. In the sunnier, more innocent and conservative moments of "Scandal", the music is more "traditional", with music coming from safer, establishment artists like Cole, singing "The Lazy Hazy Crazy Days Of Summer."

As good a film as "Scandal" is however, it does a major disservice to Edgecombe and Gordon, two black men who played a far bigger part in the Profumo scandal than Caton-Jones conveys to his audience. A two-hour film can obviously provide only so much detail, but aside from a cleverly composited three or four minutes, "Scandal" conceals the duo's pivotal role in the real-life proceedings. Egdecombe and Gordon both had torrid affairs with Christine Keeler. Keeler provided Edgecombe with the gun that we see Roland Gift (of the '80s rock band Fine Young Cannibals) firing at Ward's flat when Gift (as Johnny Edgecombe) demands that Keeler emerge from the premises.

The film also omits the fact that Keeler supplied Edgecombe with a gun specifically to protect her from Gordon, who had threatened and tried to imprison her. Gordon's and Edgecombe's subsequent arrests for assault and/or drug possession triggered disclosure of the intimate details of players in the political sex scandal to police, who then began following the implicated figures more closely and reeled them in, one famous, high-profile face at a time, until the lid blew off completely.

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"Scandal" is based in part on five different books by some of the real-life players, but two of the scandal's most indispensable figures are sorely undercut. Furthermore, one of the epilogue titles omits that during that Keeler began serving a nine-month sentence in prison specifically for admitting that she lied at Gordon's assault trial, when she said that Gordon had assaulted her.

Similarly, "Scandal" resists showing any of the sexual relationship between Keeler and Ivanov, but this may be less about speculating that such an affair may not have occurred and more about avoiding repetition that might stifle advancement of the story.

Beneath the sex, sauciness and salaciousness displayed in the film lies a tender love story between a father figure and a would-be daughter, which forms the heart of "Scandal," a film in the corner of Stephen Ward, the only person who tells the truth in an upper-crust society full of big-time charlatans. John Hurt, in a masterful bit of acting, gives Ward a poignancy and eloquence in his personal highs, lows and solitudes. He plays Ward as a figure full of naïveté and innocence: a frisky, wide-eyed child of mischief and curiosity trapped in an adult's body. When asked about what smoking pot must feel like, he replies, "I've no idea. Stiff Pimm's, I suppose." The flippant reference to the famous British drink lends breeziness to Hurt's character. Throughout the film, Hurt's plaintive expressions speak volumes about the internal turmoil of Ward.

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Ian McKellen is remarkable in a great performance as the troubled British Minister for War John Profumo, exhibiting an icy removal from the realities of his personal involvements at the heart of the story, which was written for the screen by Michael Thomas. McKellen, outstanding in the film "Gods And Monsters," plays Profumo as an implacable, paranoid soul. Thomas writes him as a shark of a politician who's come in from the cold, seemingly a smaller, more incidental player than the relentless ambitious player he actually was.

The revelation of "Scandal" however is Bridget Fonda, whose American accent disappears beneath a British one. She plays Mandy Rice-Davies, a showy charmer who emerged from obscurity to become a prominent business lady and celebrity in Israel and elsewhere. Fonda has not been better than she is here, and gives the performance of her career as a playful force of wisdom and clarity, even though Rice-Davis herself got caught in a number of hot pickles as a young entertainer.  

Joanne Whalley's work as the scandal's central figure, Christine Keeler, is underwhelming, missing the fire that the other actors breathe into their characters. There's a lack of charisma and nuance to her portrayal. When she brings a moment of levity to a courthouse scene it seems awkward or at best inconsistent with her character's serious demeanor for the entire film; she tells the court, "I would like to say that I am not and have never been a prostitute." With that line one can't help but think of the McCarthy era hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.    

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Alex Norton, best known for his work in the BBC series "Taggart", provides a noteworthy, funny turn as a hard-driving Cockney-accented detective inspector, who relentlessly and contemptuously refers to Ward as a "ponce", British slang for "pimp".

Caton-Jones is hardly the first director to take on sex, politics and hypocrisy in England. Many films skewer the sexual hypocrisy of societies, whether in England, the U.S. or other countries, and "Scandal" pulses with heat and sex, though there's plenty of nervous tittering and giggling about sex. "Scandal" isn't uncomfortable with sex, but some of its characters are. A few editorialize in their reactions to sex.

"Scandal" has been edited into several different versions. In the U.K. "Scandal" can be seen uncut at 114 minutes, as it can on Netflix. This version includes the three-minute orgy scene cut from some DVD versions of the film that claim to be "uncut and uncensored." For example, in the supposedly uncut and uncensored Korean DVD edition, 20 seconds are eliminated from the orgy scene at Mariella Novotny's mansion.

If you do a side-by-side comparison of the Korean edition and the uncut edition on streaming on Netflix, you will see a stark difference, with the editing equivalent of chop-shop cuts. (Compare this with the 1999 film "Eyes Wide Shut" and its digital cover-over of an upper-crust secret society orgy, which for years until 2007 had kept U.S. audiences from seeing the unobstructed edition the rest of the world got to see.) Apparently in Canada, "Scandal" once had a running time of 106 minutes. In February 2010, a 114-minute version of "Scandal" was been released, and is available through Amazon at $15.00

Even with the countless real-life political sex scandals that have occurred in the intervening years around the globe, "Scandal" remains a fresh and fascinating film more than 21 years after its release. "Scandal" arrived on American movie screens in April of 1989. "Scandal" was Michael Caton-Jones's feature film-directing debut and was received well by many film critics at the time of its release.

Omar Moore's website is The Popcorn Reel.. He Twitters via @popcornreel.              This song essentially tells the story of the film.      

 

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