A Very English Scandal

Ben Whishaw (left) and Hugh Grant (right) star in "A Very English Scandal" on Amazon Prime.

One of my favorite movies of 2018, the delightful “Paddington 2,” featured a hilarious performance by Hugh Grant as a fatuous actor matching wits with everyone’s favorite polite British bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw).

Grant and Whishaw are reteamed — in a VERY different way — in Amazon Prime’s terrific miniseries “A Very English Scandal,” which premiered last week. They play two very different men caught up in a huge sex-and-crime scandal that gripped Britain in the 1970s, and the three-hour miniseries captures both the tragedy and the absurdity of what happened.

Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, who in the 1960s was a rising member of the Liberal Party in Parliament. He was also a closeted gay man, at a time in Britain when homosexuality was criminalized. Still, his status allows him to get away with his affairs, along as he's discreet about it. Over dinner, he's able to wink and nod at his secret life to his best friend Peter (Alex Jennings), his eyes flashing like a little boy who has been offered dessert.

Thorpe ends up seducing a teenage stableboy named Norman Scott (Whishaw) and, surprising both of them, the pair end up falling in love and have a secret affair for several years. Eventually, they break it off, but the erratic Scott keeps threatening to reveal their secret to the world.

As Thorpe gets more and more powerful, with the office of Prime Minister starting to come within reach, he becomes more and more worried that Scott will ruin his career. He starts planning to have Scott killed. The assassination attempt goes riotously wrong (the hapless killer Thorpe hires seems straight out of a Coen Brothers movie), and Thorpe and Scott end up facing each other in court in a trial that gripped the London tabloids.

Written by Russell T Davies of “Doctor Who” and directed by Stephen Frears (who previously directed Grant in “Florence Foster Jenkins”), “Scandal” revels in every weird twist and turn of the story. The tone of the miniseries shifts between broad comedy to poignant tragedy — these are bizarre events, but they play out against the very real fear that gay men and women had of being persecuted in Britain.

Grant captures the differing sides of Thorpe, how a charismatic and gregarious politician in public could hold in so many secrets. And Whishaw’s Scott evolves from a flighty, histrionic young man into a rather kind and confident older man. While others may underestimate him, as Peter tells Thorpe, Scott may be one of the bravest men in England, an openly gay man in a country that criminalizes homosexuality.

“Should we envy him?” Thorpe responds, and it’s clear that, on some level, he does. Whoever wins in their battle in court, Scott seems to come out the winner in life. The final shots of the miniseries contrast Scott’s face — serene, at peace with himself — with Thorpe’s face — pained and contorted with the strain of denying his true self.

Also on streaming: Netflix premieres its first original Indian series, “Sacred Games,” on Friday, July 6. Based on Vikram Chandra’s best-selling thriller, the series follows a jaded Mumbai cop’s efforts to find and bring down a crime lord who had vanished from the city years ago. Netflix hopes the series will become an international hit like “Narcos,” but its toughest audience may be back in India, where audiences still prefer big-screen entertainment to the small screen.

Hulu premieres the second season of its historical drama “Harlots,” next Wednesday, July 11. The first season, starring the great Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville as the heads of rival brothels in 18th-century London, was a lot of sordid fun.

If Halloween can’t come fast enough for you, Shout! Factory TV launched its “Summer of Fear” this month, with six classic (or cheesy, depending on your point of view) horror movies streaming for free at shoutfactorytv.com. The selections include the tense “The Stepfather” starring Terry O’Quinn and the gloriously silly “Chopping Mall.”

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.