TV Review: ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ is a taut ‘Me Too’ thriller [Grade: B+]
Anatomy of a Scandal, a new limited series from Netflix adapted by the novel of the same title by Sarah Vaughan, is an incisive examination of consent and the ways in which powerful, privileged people think they can override the law.
The conversation around consent has grown over the past decade after countless celebrity and public official scandals. In 2006, social activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” in hopes of bringing awareness to the many women who have been abused or sexually assaulted. In 2017, the phrase went viral after Alyssa Milano used it in a tweet that saw celebrities replying and retweeting the phrase, which encouraged a wave of vocalizing allegations towards men that had done these crimes, including Harvey Weinstein. What’s often not spoke about when referring to these powerful men and the allegations against them are the effects this has on all the women involved in these specific cases – the person who was assaulted, the wife/girlfriend of the person who is accused of the assault, and the attorneys that represent each party. The women in these cases are particularly vulnerable to lasting cognitive dissonance as they handle the goings on about the case.
Anatomy of a Scandal puts these women and their struggles at the forefront as it dissects every point-of-view of the case being presented. It begins with an introduction to the main couple, James and Sophie Whitehouse (Rupert Friend and Sienna Miller, respectively), a government minister and his wife with whom he shares two children. One night, James tells Sophie that a story about a five-month affair he had will be coming out in the press the next day – Sophie is shocked and hurt but works through it quickly and reduces it to just being a mistake. What is first handled by the court of public opinion quickly moves to actual legal proceedings when James Whitehouse is accused of rape by his former mistress, Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott). The prosecuting attorney, Kate Woodcroft, QC (Michelle Dockery) is quickly moving up in her field of prosecuting sexual offenders and accepts this as the case of a lifetime. The series, which is only six 45-minute episodes, moves quickly into the courtroom for the trial and offers the audiences multiple perspectives on the alleged rape.
This series is half courtroom drama, half psychological thriller. It moves at a brisk pace as the characters navigate the past and its connection to their present, allowing the audience a peak at the inner lives of the women involved – particularly Sophie Whitehouse and Kate Woodcroft. It’s an interesting choice to focus the most on the two women who are not the victim, but it works to the show’s advantage, making it so that the characters and audience hear the story from Olivia Lytton’s point of view at the same time. The courtroom scenes are raw and allow several vantage points inside the courtroom: James on trial, Kate doing cross examinations of witnesses and the defendant, and Sophie looking down on the entire scene from the viewing balcony. These scenes offer subtle reactions from the characters and really give the actors chances to shine, all of them rising to the occasion. The editing of these scenes gives the audiences the appropriate shots to see the characters reacting to the testimonies in real time while also giving each character the space to react before cutting to another. With so many courtroom dramas having come out in the past decade, it’s difficult to make these kinds of scenes stand out. Anatomy of a Scandal doesn’t shy away from the real emotions these proceedings bring out of everyone involved while the trial is happening, with sharp cuts to the event the trial is discussing as well as flashbacks to other key scenes in the lives of all involved that give context to the present. Some of these scenes show James while he’s in university, the early days of his and Sophie’s relationship, while also give the audience an idea of who Kate is. Michelle Dockery is terrific as Kate, giving real depth to the woman prosecuting a public persona for a rape that she believes happened. Dockery brings a steeliness and a vulnerability to the role that makes the character a multifaceted person instead of just an angry criminal barrister, as her quest to bring justice to the alleged victim becomes more personal by the day.
There are also cuts to the past in scenes that do not involve the courtroom and these scenes move at a quick pace, giving the feeling of a psychological thriller. For the most part, the audience finds out information at the same time as Sophie Whitehouse does, revealing what a spouse of someone publicly accused of rape may experience. These scenes are gripping and emotional, the writing rich with realistic dialogue – the witness testimonies sound like they came out of a real court case. Sienna Miller is great in the entire series, but her best scenes come when she’s sifting through the truth and lies of the situation in discussion with James. She sits perched on a balcony during the trial as she attempts to suppress her emotions; Miller’s face tells an entire story during these scenes without saying a word. Her eyes flit around the courtroom, jumping from her husband to Kate to the witnesses as she attempts to piece everything together herself. Her agitation is palpable through subtle facial expressions as the court proceedings become more intense and personal.
That’s what this series does best: it allows the audience to see the story from an angle that provides a thoroughly intense look at the personal cost of being a woman accusing a public official of rape, how it feels to be the woman that stands beside him, and what it takes to be the woman prosecuting him in court. Some scenes focus on James Whitehouse with his mistress leading up to the alleged rape that gives context to the affair he had in relation to his relationship. Rupert Friend is stern, making James a character that’s steadfast in his proclamation of innocence. His performance teeters between arrogance and seeming humble, giving a good look at what it looks like to be a powerful man accused of such a crime. The series doesn’t seek to demonize his arrogance or nullify his care for his wife and family, providing an in-depth look at the experiences of the people involved in the scandal as objectively as possible.
The writing of the show does this by allowing the perspectives of all its characters to be understood and addressed while not putting any one person’s perspective above another. It seeks to be objective in its presentation of the scandal which furthers the realistic aspect of the series. The cinematography and editing choices clearly convey the disorientation that such a situation brings to the people suffering from something like this, but these choices don’t always work with the tone of the series. The edges of the frame blur, and the camera becomes shakier with swift motions to replicate the dizziness of someone drunk or that has recently dealt with trauma. These moments can feel out of place but are still effective in what they are trying to do. S.J. Clarkson’s direction allows the performances to feel like the characters all have emotions bubbling under the surface that rise until they finally come out. The characters drift from the present to the past in well-done transitions that take them from the courtroom right into moments of their college days. It’s an interesting choice that highlights how these small details in court can trigger painful memories that are brought to the forefront—the past intertwined with the present that can be disorienting to the person experiencing it.
The most important part of Anatomy of a Scandal is the discussion surrounding consent. Consent has been highly discussed over the past decade as the public discussion about rape culture has become more prominent than ever. The series does a good job at highlighting the differences of culture and communication when it comes to these kinds of allegations, acknowledging that it was much harder to get people to care about rape allegations 20 years ago than it is now. Due to the “Me Too” movement, more women are feeling empowered to speak their truth, even if justice doesn’t always prevail in their favor when it comes to any legal system. The show presents all sides of the allegation but stands a firm ground that rape and consent is not a gray area, but a black and white issue where consent is very clear when attached to certain words like “no” or even phrases that are similar but are clearly not “yes.” By presenting all sides of the courtroom drama, it brings a nuanced look at the conversation regarding rape culture while also bringing twists that change everything about the narrative.
While being relatively short at six episodes, Anatomy of a Scandal still packs a punch as it reveals the inner lives of everyone involved in this high-profile scandal. Anyone keen on courtroom dramas will find themselves attached to their tv as the evidence is revealed and the case unfurls. The series boasts great performances from every member of the cast, the standout being Michelle Dockery for her fierce performance as a criminal barrister determined to reveal what she believes is the truth. The writing is succinct and makes each scene feel more urgent as the series goes on. This is a binge-worthy series that is worth an entire Saturday night to ingest the series and shouldn’t be missed for any fans of courtroom dramas or taut psychological thrillers.
Netflix will release all six episode of the limited series Anatomy of a Scandal on April 15.