Back in 2017, Westminster was rocked by a long series of allegations of sexual misconduct made against members of parliament and their staff. A year later, Sarah Vaughan, an author of psychological thrillers, published a novel exploring the trials and tribulations of a married couple dealing with the fallout of a #MeToo accusation. Now, with scant progress made cleaning up Westminster’s act, Netflix has brought that story to the screen in the form of a glamorous six-part miniseries.
Anatomy of a Scandal follows Tory MP and immigration minister James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) in the wake of revelations that he cheated on his wife Sophie (Sienna Miller) with his parliamentary aide Olivia (Aladdin’s Naomi Scott). What starts as a mere tabloid imbroglio becomes far more serious when James is accused of rape. The scandal is, from there, anatomised at the Old Bailey, as Michelle Dockery’s prosecution lawyer, Kate Woodcroft, pulls the politician’s life and history apart.
Whitehouse is a devious customer, and who better to portray that than Friend, a man blessed by nature with a face as shifty as it is handsome (Rufus Sewell was presumably unavailable). But in the ensuing game of he-said-she-said, it’s Miller’s Sophie who is tasked with the role of moral umpire. Should she stick by her husband as the Daily Mail splashes his affair across its front pages? Should she support him as the allegations become more serious? And, indeed, ever more personal? Sophie’s assessment that her husband is “a bit assertive but not brutish” is tested over and over.
All of this makes Anatomy of a Scandal sound like a very serious piece of work, and to some extent that’s true, because it certainly takes itself very seriously. Not content to merely show up the flaws in the prosecution of sexual assault (fertile territory of late, as seen in shows like Joanne Froggatt’s Liar and Sheridan Smith’s No Return) Anatomy of a Scandal adds a layer of political intrigue. The Bullingdon-esque escapades of James and the prime minister (Geoffrey Streatfeild) are paired with the bollockings – essential to any depiction of Westminster – of a Malcolm Tucker-lite spin doctor, played by Joshua McGuire (who seems to be in everything right now, taking any role that Tom Hollander passes on). “Sex doesn’t have to kill a career these days,” he tells the embattled MP. “You might even gain some fans among the older male voter.”
If this confluence of saucy potboiler Apple Tree Yard and the Oxbridge oafs of The Riot Club sounds naff, that’s because it is. And the writing doesn’t help, veering between wildly expository (“I’ve been so stressed out at work these past many months,” James tells his wife, “I’m honoured to have the immigration portfolio but it is impossibly complex”) and deeply clichéd (“If mere infidelity were enough to ruin a marriage, there wouldn’t be an intact family in this whole bloody school,” Sophie is told by a fellow mum). But the biggest problem with Anatomy of a Scandal is its own slipperiness. Is this an erotic thriller? A courtroom drama? An expose of social issues? At times it is all of these things, though most of the time it exists in the listless space between any clear genre – or sense of identity.
It is, sadly, not for me to pontificate on the wisdom of releasing Anatomy of a Scandal just two weeks after serious allegations of sexual misconduct by two, real life, Tory MPs came to light. But it does speak to the show’s fundamental failing. Depictions of abuses of power can be sexy or they can be unsexy, but they should never be both. The central drama – played out by Friend, Miller and Scott – works hard to avoid being overly stimulating, but can never resist playing the sex and rape sequences on-screen. Even as it sermonises, Anatomy of a Scandal can’t resist titillating. “Prosecuting sexual assault is as urgent as it is frustrating,” the lawyer, Kate, tells her junior. Frustration, it seems, is the order of the day.