Last summer, Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, resigned after it emerged that the married MP had relationship with a married colleague in his office. Those real-life events give Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal, a limited series about a philandering MP charged with rape, the feeling of plausibility. Based on Sarah Vaughn’s popular 2018 novel, the series feels oddly prescient, resonating deeply in a Britain where the government is controlled by Eton and Oxford elite who are rarely held to account, even in the worst of wrongdoings.
But Anatomy of a Scandal, created by David E. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson, is presented with far more dramatic flair than any real-world scandal. The story centers a handsome MP, James Whitehouse, played by Rupert Friend, who is put on trial after being accused of rape by the woman he was having an affair with. The accusation and resulting trial sends his wife, Sophie, embodied with grace by Sienna Miller, into a tailspin. In the courtroom, Barrister Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery) has to contend with James’ charm and refusal to acknowledge that he may have overstepped with his young, impressionable aide Olivia (Naomi Scott).
That narrative is compelling, especially as flashbacks to James and Sophie’s Oxford days reveal secrets that have been long-hidden. The problem is in the execution, as directed by S.J. Clarkson, who helmed all six episodes. The camera is constantly tilting and twisting itself, like in some kind of Lifetime thriller, and the attempts at cinematic grandeur come across as a cheesy soap opera. At one point, as James is being questioned by Kate on the stand, the lights dim and reveal the two alone in the courtroom. In another scene, when James first hears of Olivia’s accusation, James is literally flung backwards in slow motion, the physical jolt mirroring his inner gut punch. It’s an unnecessary gimmick. The story is dramatic enough; these overwrought visual choices take away from the complexity of the circumstances.
Much like The Undoing, Anatomy of a Scandal relies on courtroom scenes and stylized flashbacks to tell its tale. As the episodes unfold, we learn more and more about James’ university years, during which he was a privileged, entitled kid whose best friend was the now-Prime Minister Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streatfield). Some bad stuff happened back then—suddenly David Cameron’s Piggate doesn’t seem so far-fetched—and the consequences of James’ past actions are informing his future. A serious twist comes at the end of episode four that recasts what we know of Kate and ripples into the finale. Miller, Dockery and Friend take the show seriously, even with all of the odd camerawork and soap-y moments, which sells the plausibility of the plot just enough to keep it interesting.
Clarkson, known for her work on Jessica Jones, may have had an uphill battle with the subject matter, particularly the discussions of consent. The viewer will want James to be held accountable—as we want all entitled male politicians to be held accountable for their misdeeds—but Anatomy of a Scandal avoids that big cathartic moment. Olivia is cast as unreliable, even as Kate aptly argues her case, and James’ testimony amounts to the fact that she lying. Other recent TV shows, like I May Destroy You, have played with the issues around consent, memory, and rape to much greater success.
What’s more successful is the show’s conversation around power and who is allowed to wield it. Vaughn recently said that James was partially inspired by Boris Johnson, the current U.K. prime minister, telling the Times that Johnson doesn’t necessarily always realize he’s lying. “It was very clear that he had a very different moral compass, that he was playing by different rules,” she said. That’s true of the current British government, certainly, especially as they try to shake off Partygate, but also rings bells in the U.S. and other countries as well. The men in power are groomed from a young age and feel entitled to their elite status. When James claims that he shouldn’t be on trial because he’s always been in service to his country, Kate incredulously asks if he thinks he can get away with rape because of his position. It’s clear he thinks exactly that.
Anatomy of a Scandal is compelling, even in its shortcomings. There are unintentionally laughable moments, but the acting is strong and the story hits too close to home to feel unbelievable. It’s not based on one true story; it’s seemingly based on many. The final moments feel like an aside, rather than a satisfying conclusion, but series does manage to make its point: Men like James will always come out on top.