(NOTE: A version of this article was published here.)
** (out of 4)
In recent years, many of the works of English director Stephen Frears have suffered from two major flaws. First, in films like Philomena, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Victoria & Abdul, the most important moments in the narrative were often characterized by heavy-handed messaging. And second, in films like Philomena and Victoria & Abdul, Frears disregarded or downplayed facts that would have complicated his view of history.
Given the rave reviews that it received, you’d think that A Very English Scandal, a miniseries that Frears directed in 2018, broke this unfortunate streak in his recent career. For those who haven’t seen it, the miniseries depicts the relationship between Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant), a popular British politician during the ’60s and ’70s, and Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), an aggrieved former lover of Thorpe’s. After Thorpe tries but fails to have Scott killed, Scott denounces Thorpe to the police, resulting in a highly publicized trial that precipitates the end of Thorpe’s political career.
In many respects, A Very English Scandal definitely deserved the praise that critics showered upon it. Yet despite its merits, it, too, ultimately falls victim to forms of the two aforementioned problems. To be more precise, several scenes in the show prove needlessly didactic. And the miniseries also offers an incomplete depiction of what it was like to be gay in 20th-century England.