The impact of the #MeToo movement, when it hit Hollywood and beyond in 2017, is hard to quantify. But in retrospect, the changes it wrought were not immense when it comes to actual change in structural, pervasive kind of sexism. Certainly, it brought down a lot of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, but many others who were also ‘cancelled’ like Louis CK are not only back in spotlight, but are being bestowed with accolades.
In India, of course, it fizzled out very soon despite bravery of scores of women who put their entire careers in jeopardy to come out and share their accounts. Particularly in the political world in the country, it hardly found any traction.
However, it at least began conversations on thorny topics like consent and privilege, and it is no longer considered “normal” to harass women in workplace and organisations are now less likely to let such behaviour slide due to fear of blowback. Consent and privilege are two things that are interestingly at the heart of Anatomy of a Scandal.
Coming from David E. Kelley, who has found considerable acclaim for book-to-small-screen adaptations like Big Little Lies of late, and Melissa James Gibson, the series is based on a novel by British journalist Sarah Vaughan that was published not long after the #MeToo reached Westminster.
Vaughan used her experiences as a political reporter to write a political thriller in the post-MeToo era. The story follows an illicit affair involving a charismatic, good-looking minister in the Tory government called James Whitehouse. The press gets wind of his sexual relationship with a younger employee Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott), and a scandal looms large. His distraught wife Sophie (Sienna Miller) has to come to terms with and in public at least, let it go for now.
Whitehouse begs forgiveness from his constituents, and thanks to the support of Prime Minister Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streatfeild), his old college chum, he does not lose his ministry. All is well.
However, things seriously exacerbate for Whitehouse when Olivia hurls a rape accusation at him. He is appalled, assuring Sophie that although his betrayal was morally repugnant, it was also wholly consensual and the lying young woman has ulterior motives. Nevertheless, he has to go on trial, and this time he has to lose the ministry — temporarily anyway.
James, being wealthy, is not too worried about the case, for he can hire the best legal counsel in the country. But Olivia has the counsel of firebrand Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery)
The story is told mainly through the perspective of Sophie, a fascinating choice for she has everything to lose if her husband goes down. Naturally, her first instinct is to stand beside him. How could this loving, if a little wayward man be violent? But as new revelations come to light and an old accusation resurfaces, she begins to have second thoughts. She is forced to question what kind of man James really is.
Anatomy of a Scandal’s director SJ Clarkson dies a superb job in keeping up the intrigue. She is assisted well by the script that nicely blends its themes with the necessities of a thriller. The narrative switches back and forth from the present to the past to James and Tom’s Oxford days and the blossoming of romance between James and Sophie, who were collegemates. This device lends itself exceedingly well to the two aforementioned themes.
The series asks uncomfortable questions and demands the viewer to take another look at the central event in question, the “rape”. What at one glance looks like a frenzied, passionate quickie in a lift to the observer may turn out to be assault. Or is it? Due to the lack of CCTV footage, there is one person’s word against another, and unless there is solid evidence against the accused, they are innocent in the eyes of the law.
Consent is complicated. Many, if not most men, take it for granted. It can be taken away in the middle of the sexual activity if, for instance, one of the partners loses interest or is not comfortable with the act. One character in Anatomy of a Scandal expresses shock that the UK criminalised marital rape only in 1991.
(Well, in India, we are yet to reach that point.)
There are echoes of Aziz Ansari case here, where the comedian-actor maintains the sex was consensual, and the woman disagrees. We also see hints of Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal as well as Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against associate justice of US Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh.
The performances, as expected from such a cast, are sublime. Rupert Friend plays James with a sensitivity without which the character would be totally unsympathetic. He comes out less as a downright evil person and more like an ignorant doofus, brought up as a man who can do no wrong and cannot entertain the idea that some women may not want to sleep with him.
Miller also brings a lot to the role as a woman dealing with one humiliating blow after another. She insists she does not want to be a long-suffering wife, and like what happens every day has to face the consequence of her husband’s actions. Dockery also impresses as an activist lawyer risking her career to go against pretty much the government.
Not all is well in the the show, though. Anatomy of a Scandal is a London-set story created by Americans, and feels so. The Brit eccentricities and humour is missing. Also unlike Big Little Lies, the show lacks nuance. Phrases and expressions are repeated to the point that they lose their impact.
But these are more quirks than actual shortcomings. For the most part, Anatomy of a Scandal is an entertaining, reflective political thriller.