“A Very English Scandal”

A Young Lover

Amos Lassen

 “A Very English Scandal” is  a three-part dramatization of events leading up to Jeremy Thorpe’s infamous 1979 trial for conspiracy to murder his troubled and increasingly troublesome young boyfriend, Norman Scott.

Hugh Grant is Thorpe and he is charming, sly, duplicitous, forthright, manipulative, sometimes by turns, sometimes all at once, he is never less than wholly convincing and compelling. He is every bit a star handles the comic scenes and moments with deftness yet he never loses sight of the underlying nervousness, fear and venality underlying the politician’s moves. Discussing his situation with best friend Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), he realizes his need to marry in order to progress in politics. He is so very different from poor, unstable, neurotic Norma (Ben Whishaw), born Josiffe, renamed Scott when he relocates to Dublin and a modelling career seems to be taking off.

Scott is, at first, as Thorpe notes, “a very heaven” and he idolizes Thorpe, who gives him a flat, money and a nickname, Bunny, that will one day be known, as nicknames between lovers never should, nationwide. Scott becomes resentful of the time Thorpe spends away from him and concentrates on his refusal to get him a new insurance card so he can claim benefits and secure his prescription medications. When their relationship disintegrates past the point of no return, Scott tells the police Thorpe made him “a victim of his lusts” and provides private letters as evidence. “Bunnies can and will go to Paris!” says one letter that has tickets to France enclosed.

Thorpe’s political star is rising  via several pro-European, pro-immigration and other progressive speeches that fit with our sympathies and complicate our reactions as his mood darkens towards his ex-lover. This is a drama that is brutally funny, clever and confident. It is twenty years of salient political history with a finely-worked portrait of the English establishment, shaping and being shaped by a certain kind of man  who is protected by certain privileges and living under a particular kind of fear. The era’s moves to legalize homosexuality and the European and immigration concerns playout in the background and give resonate but it is Grant’s powerful performance that  holds it together, humanizes the characters and makes sense of it all.

Jeremy Thorpe  was an MP who became the leader of the Liberal Party, but this was a time when being gay was very much frowned and illegal. Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears  does his best work in a long time. but it’s not for a film opening in theaters today.

As captured here, Norman was something of an acquisition for Thorpe, someone he could protect and predict. Tired of the danger of illegal one-night stands with men, Norman was something he could control—until he couldn’t. After the two split, Norman became the secret for Jeremy that wouldn’t go away. And so he tried to have him murdered.  Norman was the kind of young man who partied constantly and told stories to try and impress people around him. The look in his eyes when one of Thorpe’s colleagues who knows about the relationship verbally recognizes the honest emotion of it is poignant. He has been dismissed by everyone and was then seen by one of the most powerful men in the country. He refuses to let that go. In some ways, it’s all he has.

For Thorpe, nothing is more important than his reputation and his political career, and it’s when his gay love threatens his career, he lashes out. He would rather be dead than outed. Norman becomes a situation that he thought he completely controlled that ends up controlling him. Thorpe remains engaging instead of merely a villain. We understand part of what he did.  This is a scandal during which the sexuality of the defendant became more controversial than the allegation that he tried to kill someone. The skewed priority that values public perception over human life is there under the surface of the show and we fully understand that this is what created Jeremy Thorpe and made him into such a monster. 

 “A Very English Scandal” can be very humorous, especially as the attempted murder unfolds in a dumb manner but when it reaches its emotional peak, it is incredibly moving. It is this year’s must see.

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