Throughout his prolific career, Hugh Grant has portrayed a number of memorable and romantic leading men. His name conjures up images of debonair love interests with dashing smiles, all destined to sweep women, and viewers, off their feet. But in A Very English Scandal, a new three-part miniseries debuting on Amazon (it's already aired in the U.K.), he sheds the image that made him a household name to take on a much different and far more complex role.
As Jeremy Thorpe, the real life member of Parliament accused -- and eventually acquitted -- of conspiring to murder his former lover, Norman Scott (portrayed by Ben Whishaw), Grant is as charming as ever, but he's also a villain like we've never seen before. This isn't the womanizing Daniel Cleaver from Bridget Jones' Diary; reckless, manipulative and deceitful, Thorpe wields his privileged status and power as a rising member, and eventual leader of, the Liberal Party to take what he wants and later cover up the aftermath.
The miniseries is based upon the non-fiction book of the same name by John Preston and dramatizes the real salacious sex scandal that ended Thorpe's career and rocked Great Britain in the '70s. Viewers will likely be shocked by the cold way Thorpe casually decides to murder Scott, with whom he had a lengthy relationship in the early 1960s, just so the latter could not derail his upward political trajectory; there's not a hint of guilt or remorse evident on his face in the moment. But it's even sadder when one realizes Scott had no interest in ruining Thorpe's career; rather, he wanted Thorpe's help to get a National Insurance card, which would allow him to work and give him access to the medications he needed for his mental illness. Thorpe's refusal to procure the card is sometimes played for laughs throughout the perfectly paced three-hour story, and it works because it's easy to see that if Thorpe had simply helped Scott like he initially said he would, he potentially could have prevented himself (and Scott) a great deal of personal pain.
However, although the way in which Thorpe treats Scott -- and probably treated many of the young men he picked up -- is shocking and therefore unforgettable, Grant is actually at his best in the quieter instances in which Thorpe's mask slips and we see the real man beneath, the man who's denied and covered up his sexuality, complete with marriages to two different women, for years. It's those moments in which he shows he's vulnerable and capable of love and empathy that Grant truly shines. A scene in which Thorpe's second wife Marion (Monica Dolan) picks up on the way her husband wrote "I miss you" in one of his many letters to Scott -- "I think that's a wonderful thing for a man to say to his friend" -- also stands out as particularly memorable.
But as good as Grant's award-worthy performance is, it is equally matched by the always exceptional Whishaw, who portrays the many sides and layers of Scott with effortless ease. He is incredibly vulnerable, especially early on, when he meets Thorpe while working in a stable on a farm in the country. But as the years pass, he's also shown to be rather fearless, unafraid to wear his sexuality on his sleeve despite the fact it makes him a punching bag.
Although A Very English Scandal will probably best be remembered for the two incredible performances at the heart of its narrative, it is also a careful study in how to balance a story in which the truth is almost certainly stranger than any fiction.
In the hands of screenwriter Russell T Davies (Doctor Who) and director Stephen Frears (The Queen), the miniseries is a surprisingly dark comedy that still knows precisely when and how long to linger to properly emphasize the heartbreaking despair of the gay men at its center, which is obviously not limited to Thorpe and Scott but includes all gay men who had to live their lives in secret, behind closed doors, first because the laws declared homosexuality illegal and later because of bigotry. It's an incredibly well done miniseries, but it's also terribly relevant today, and viewers shouldn't be surprised if they come away from it wondering what has actually changed in the decades since the botched attempt on Scott's life.
A Very English Scandal premieres Friday, June 29 on Amazon.