The main characters are unappealing and out of touch, with precious few redeeming features for either of the Whitehouses, even if we’re supposed to empathise with Sophie. When the court case begins, so do the misty flashbacks. We’re shown the Whitehouses’ meet-cute at Oxford University (of course); their love story must be the only one in history that starts with “anal chugging”, as James is revealed to be part of the Libertine fraternity, based on the real-life rich-boy Bullingdon Club. With bum cheeks drenched in beer in the background, Sophie swoons at James nonetheless.
We learn that James and his old friend, the Conservative Prime Minister, Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streatfeild) have a shared history and dark secrets from their time at university, but we also witness Sophie’s offensive behaviour from an early age too – exploiting a study partner into doing her academic coursework for her. As the drama moves into the courtroom, it’s James under the microscope for his actions – but Sophie now starts to question not only the man she’s been married to for 12 years, but what she’s chosen to ignore. “Whitehouses always come out on top!” her two kids chant alongside their dad in their creepy but darkly fitting family mantra, as, in a scene at home, James cheats at Monopoly again, with a get-out-of-jail card kept in his wallet.
It’s a consent case where we are told almost nothing about the victim – we see Olivia only being questioned in court, or in flashbacks that borrow from The Affair’s handbook in differing slightly according to different characters – so our point of entry is Sophie. The real hardship of this case, it seems to imply, is that she finally has to see her husband as the rest of the world does.
The drama is punctuated by unintentionally hilarious bits of direction – in the first episode when James is told by police that he’s been accused of rape, there’s an imagined sequence in which the force of the news throws him up in the air and he falls slo-mo back to the ground. It’s an inflated, heavy-handed visual shorthand for being gut-punched, but it’s not the only time the device is used in the series.
Sophie, after being remarkably laissez-faire about her husband’s infidelity at first, by episode two finds herself suddenly so tormented she runs out of a court, the camera running rings around her. What follows is a bizarre montage of imagined distressful moments involving the lift sex scene – and Sophie falling slo-mo on to the floor of the courthouse. After Googling a photo of her husband’s mistress, she throws up on her iPhone; another ham-fisted way to make the emotion more palpable or visceral that actually just ends up being laughable. It doesn’t help that the adaptation of a very similar story – 2017’s Emmy-nominated Apple Tree Yard, also taken from a novel – worked vastly better.
Rupert Friend plays the glib and odious James with gusto, while Miller goes from playing Sophie as flat, almost devoid of emotion, to overwrought. Like Nicole Kidman as Grace Fraser in The Undoing, there’s lots of striding around being breathless in designer trench coats, but little real insight into a traumatised woman whose world is meant to be tumbling down. James’ PR Chris Clarke (Joshua McGuire) has obvious aspirations to be a Malcolm Tucker-esque character, but isn’t delivered the savage wit in the script to pull it off. Dockery puts in a solid performance as the ice-cold QC with a big secret – her post-court sparring with her defence colleague Angela Regan (Josette Simon) add some levity to proceedings – but any weight she brings to the role is often undermined by bizarre direction or cinematography choices: such as the imagined scene where she and James are going head to head in an empty courtroom, circling around each other, with the camera doing a full 360 around them. It’s hard to take seriously. Where A Very British Scandal and A Very English Scandal showed how to treat this kind of subject matter with nuance, this veers into pantomime.
There are twists saved for the final few episodes – which will probably come as no massive shock; no-one’s going to be thrown back on the floor in slo-mo at their reveal. Anatomy of a Scandal will probably induce a few gasps in viewers, but not for the reason it hopes.
Anatomy of a Scandal streams on Netflix from 15 April.
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