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Anatomy of a Scandal Doesn't Hold Up Under the Scalpel

Content warning: This review includes descriptions of sexual violence.

How the mighty fall / from the throne we’ve made / we want it all / it’s a dangerous game

When a song this preposterously insipid, its lyrics so trite it could’ve been written by a half-finished AI program, booms over the opening scene of a new television series, what follows can never, ever be good. This holds true for “Anatomy of a Scandal,” Netflix’s new anthology series that plans to depict various British scandals, starting with one based on author Sarah Vaughan’s novel of the same name. 

The setup is about as stirring as the song: James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) is a member of Parliament, an Old Etonian and Oxford grad whose rise as a junior minister is a sure sign of an even brighter future. His wife Sophie (Sienna Miller) is part of his parade of perfection: slim glamorous blonde, also an Oxford grad (they met there), mother to their two beautiful children. This parade comes to a screeching halt when Chris Clarke (Joshua McGuire, doing his best Tom Hollander impression), the minister’s communications czar, tells James the newspapers have got wind of a rather juicy story: not only was Whitehouse having a five-month-long affair with a young woman named Olivia Lytton, they met while she worked in his office as his parliamentary researcher. In lurid detail the tabloids note the pair even had sex in a lift inside the House of Commons. What Whitehouse doesn’t know is that Lytton has also filed a police report, alleging that the sex inside the lift was not consensual. That he raped her.

One of the few above-average elements of the series is Miller’s performance, at least prior to the Whitehouses learning about the rape accusation. There is something very raw, very visceral in her reaction when James confesses his infidelity and begs forgiveness. You can practically see the cells of Sophie’s body shaking. She vomits after she Googles the photo of her husband’s mistress. (Friend’s work as James is humdrum, at best.) When she looks up from retching into the kitchen sink, her throat throbs, quivering under the weight of the bitter pill she’s having to swallow. The hurricane of emotion that’s mowed down Sophie’s marriage has all but literally toppled her, she can barely stand up straight. There may be a very good reason Miller brings such depth to a portrayal of betrayal: In 2005, Jude Law, Miller’s then-husband, confessed he’d slept with their children’s nanny. As the series progresses, however, Sophie exhibits reprehensible anti-feminist rationalizations, which ring hollow onscreen.

Naomi Scott’s turn as Olivia Lytton is also necessarily complex. Her spine is ramrod straight when she defends her professionalism, the educational credits that got her hired in an MP’s office, and her sexual autonomy. Olivia, like so many survivors of sexual violence, has difficulty remembering everything in exactly the same detail every time she tells her story. But this, along with her willingness to engage in an adulterous affair with her boss, is used against her in court—again making her like the survivors of sexual violence at the hands of powerful men, dismissed because they are “a woman scorned,” liars, or jealous whores. As a rape survivor myself, I felt something very deep inside my own body rise up when Scott struggles to contain her tears, her voice disintegrating into pained whispers, while describing the rape in court. 

Prosecuting Whitehouse is Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery). A respected barrister, known to win cases, ruthless, determined, Woodcroft is also sleeping with her married ex-mentor, whom she first pursued when she was his student. At multiple turns the writing in “Anatomy of a Scandal” introduces the idea of sexual dynamics as complex as the Gordian knot, but instead of addressing them with maturity, empathy, and intelligence, the writers simply slice through the knot, leaving them dangling in the wind. Dockery does her best to elevate the material, and the strident nature of her diction and body language certainly deserve praise. There’s even an excellent facial muscle twitch, later in the series, that’s more compelling than the entire show. But even Dockery seems to know the high drama of the courtroom exchanges is more Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” than BBC’s “Silk.” Phoebe Nicholls also rates high in her brief, but pitch-perfect, appearance as Tuppence Whitehouse, James’s posh mother, airily decrying Olivia to Sophie, and lightly defending her son from the allegations while wondering about his excellent lying skills.

There are several bizarre gaps in the show’s structure. While Whitehouse is shown rehearsing with his lawyer, Woodcroft is never shown consulting with Lytton; how will the audience know if, according to English law, the former is allowed but the latter isn’t? Another glaring error in the show’s writing is its constant use of Americanisms. The English say “surname,” not “last name”; “gone to the cinema” or “the pictures,” not “the movies.” Out of curiosity I went and read Anatomy of a Scandal, the novel, after I finished the series. It’s not bad: the writing is more acerbic, more personal, less slapdash. The strongest page-to-screen characterization is that of Prime Minister Tom Sturridge, whose TV double bears a striking resemblance to former PM David Cameron (himself no stranger to horrible behavior at Oxford), and who, for some mysterious reason, refuses to distance himself from James. Everyone else has been, well, Americanized. 

I won’t give away why but the only crew members who deserve commendation are the hair department (they know why). All episodes of “Anatomy of a Scandal” are directed by SJ Clarkson, whose credits include an episode of “Succession.” I wish I knew why she chose canted angles as a substitute for storytelling. The series is created and written by Melissa James Gibson and David E. Kelley. The former was part of the writing and producing team on “House of Cards” starting in season four (when everything began to slide downhill, and I don’t just mean the chaos in the Underwood’s lives). As for Kelley, after the disastrous “The Undoing” and this misfire, the real scandal in his life may be if he can figure out how to recover for a second season.

Whole season screened for review.

Nandini Balial

Nandini Balial is a film and TV critic, essayist, and interviewer.

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