Content and trigger warning: this review discusses sexual assault.
When Anatomy of a Scandal opens, the Whitehouse family seemingly has it all. There’s James (Rupert Friend), a high-ranking member of Parliament, his society-darling wife Sophie (Sienna Miller), their children, and a gorgeous London townhouse. They even have a family motto: “What’s the thing about Whitehouses?” James asks the children. They reply: “We always come out on top!”
That the Whitehouses come out on top becomes more of a sinister statement as the story unfolds. The family lives a quiet life until a scandal splashes across the news: James had an affair with his younger colleague, Olivia (Naomi Scott).
At first, the direction of Anatomy of a Scandal is clear, aimed at examining the blurred lines of extramarital relationships. However, the initial story is not the whole story. As Sophie considers sticking by the man who betrayed her, a new story breaks: Olivia accuses James of sexual assault. The accusation prompts Sophie to reexamine her history with James, dating back to their years at Oxford; there’s far more to their history than she realized.
Anatomy of a Scandal relies on its stylized sheen to bring a new angle to storytelling. This works for and against it. At its best, it builds tension. Olivia’s testimony moves back and forth between the present and her memory, blending camera angles and set pieces to compress the action. It gives the sensation that Olivia is living in both moments at once, and is very moving.
But the series tips too far in using physical demonstrations of how the characters feel. James and Sophie both are shown being thrown backward in moments of shock, which is more comical than expressive. These are talented actors: why not trust them to express their shock, rather than throw them backward, as if they’ve gotten too close to an explosion?
Where Anatomy of a Scandal is most perplexing is its treatment of Olivia, a mere speedbump in James’ political career. In contrast, we are given tremendous insight into the personal lives of Sophie, James, prosecutor Kate Woodcroft (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery), and even the Prime Minister (Geoffrey Streatfeild).
The only glimpses we see of Olivia’s life and feelings are within her own testimony at the trial. The series is otherwise disinterested in her life outside of the courtroom. For it to be a true anatomy of a scandal, all players should be seen equally, shouldn’t they? That Olivia is seen less as a character and more of a plot device for James’ unraveling is a cold way to treat her. (It’s also unfair to Scott, last seen in Aladdin and Charlie’s Angels, whose turn as Olivia is a great showcase of her dramatic chops.)
The cast carries Anatomy of a Scandal, and that’s more than enough to keep your attention. Miller expresses Sophie’s turmoil with a steely balance between loyalty to James and distrust of his motives. Friend, perhaps best known for playing another cad (Mr. Wickham in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice) is a worthy foil to Miller. Dockery, always a captivating presence onscreen, transcends her period drama pedigree in this rare but welcome contemporary role. The trio of leading actors, plus Scott, makes for a dynamic group to carry the story.
Anatomy of a Scandal was developed by David E. Kelley, whose most recent television successes include a string of book-to-miniseries adaptations, including Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers (Anatomy of a Scandal is based on a 2018 novel by Sarah Vaughan.) The pacing of Anatomy of a Scandal is one of its strengths—as a film, it might have flown through important plot points too quickly—and six episodes is a good length for allowing this story to unfold.
It’s not the hard-hitting takedown of power and privilege it hopes to be, but the cast and pacing make Anatomy of a Scandal a binge-able, if messy, affair.
Anatomy of a Scandal is now streaming on Netflix.