Two miserable adults quickly fall madly in love and, when they’re not lusting after each other, proceed to try to destroy each other. Good times!
No really, good times. The fact-based “A Very British Scandal” now on Amazon is an entertaining, beautifully filmed, and dynamically acted portrait of the tumultuous and infamous marriage of Margaret Sweeney and Captain Ian Campbell, better known as the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. Their 1963 divorce was a major tabloid event across the pond, one that included an incendiary Polaroid photograph of sexual activity between Margaret and a mystery man who was not her husband.
Like the best true-story TV adaptations — and there have been many of late — the three-part miniseries, written by Sarah Phelps, is not merely juicy rehash. It also brings out the sexism and hypocrisy with which women in the public eye were — and often still are — treated, something “Pam & Tommy” also highlighted. When the sexually liberated Margaret arrives at the divorce court for the beginning of the trial, the crowd screams “slut” as she enters the building, and later the judge describes her as a “highly sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal relations,” one who’d “started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite.” Yes, really.
The series is from the producers of 2018′s “A Very English Scandal,” another outstanding three-parter about real-life notoriety. And just as “English Scandal” was elevated by the lead performances by Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, “British Scandal” is given a great lift by Claire Foy and Paul Bettany, who are both at their best as the troubled couple. Their chemistry is strong from the time they meet on a train, and it’s not until the day they’re married that Margaret catches her first glimpse of Ian’s cruel side and begins to see that he’s using her for her money.
Foy, in particular, is compelling, as a woman who’s unwilling to play by the rules forced on women. She isn’t some kind of self-aware feminist heroine so much as a persistent person who knows what she wants and what is right and who is stubborn enough to fight for them despite backward social mores. Bettany is excellent and hard to watch, as he sheds his initial charm and delivers the calculating Duke in all his substance abuse and coldness. He is a cad.