Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Streaming must: The Hugh Grant renaissance continues via Stephen Frear's tone-perfect joy, A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL

Never off the grid of television or movie screens for more than a year or so, at longest, British actor Hugh Grant is now approaching his senior years (he turns 58 this September) with a renewed vigor and presence that seems nothing short of remarkable. Think for a moment of his last three outings. In 2016, he got a Golden Globe nomination for his work as the helpful, loving and straying husband to and in Florence Foster Jenkins. I hope you did not miss his delightful and versatile work in 2017's Paddington 2, which ought to have garnered him a Best Supporting Oscar were it not that the Academy seldom takes seriously great comic acting (his musical number during the end credits alone is sensational). Paddington 2, by the way, has the distinction of being the most highly rated movie ever on Rotten Tomatoes. (Deservedly so, too. It gives non-stop pleasure and delight, while everyone connected with the film -- actors, writers, director, costumers, production designers -- is top-notch.)

Now we have A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL, the new three-part series from BBC One, available to stream via Amazon Prime. As directed by Stephen Frears (shown at right), one of the world's best but least-fully-appreciated filmmakers, with a screenplay by Russell T. Davies and John Preston, the movie manages what can only be called a near-perfect tone throughout. What I mean is that, although it deals with "criminal" sexuality (as homosexuality was stupidly viewed in Britain, as the movie's time period begins), betrayal, infidelity, blackmail and murder, the film itself is about as witty and consistently delightful as you could believe possible, given the subject matter.

How Frears, Davies, Preston and their enormously gifted cast manage this is by never over-doing the comedy but letting it flow naturally from these characters, many of whom are entitled, pompous and hugely hypocritical British males of the 1960 and 70s. The humanity of every single character here is never for a moment lost, even as we delight again and again in their foibles. Their clever, sometimes near-poetic/pornographic dialog flows so readily and naturally that to miss even a line or two would be a shame indeed.

Mr. Grant (above) is at his coldest, silliest and often saddest here, and he is matched scene for scene by the wonderful Ben Whishaw (below), who plays the most truthful, least hypocritical character in the film -- even if his antics often prove quite shocking, considering the time frame of the film.

That the movie is based on a real-life tale -- do stay for the end-credit sequence that will bring you up-to-date on what happened to these people -- only makes the goings-on that much more mind-boggling fun.

From practically the first encounter we view -- that of Grant's character, the light of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, and his good friend Peter Bessell (played by a terrific Alex Jennings, above, right), as the two discuss their sexual preferences, the banter is simultaneously surprising, beautifully restrained yet still jolting, and funny despite itself. It also perfectly encapsulates the men's sense of entitlement: so absolute that's it's simply a given.

How the tale unfurls to encompass the most awful things -- most of which do not, finally, occur -- simply increases the series' black humor, with a wonderful array of subsidiary near-nitwits brought into the plot. (Two of these -- played by Blake Harrison above, left, and Dyfan Dwyfor above, right -- are especially funny.)

Mr. Frears usually jumps and mashes genres and I suspect this proves a great help in his ability to achieve his special and remarkable consistent "tone" within a film that melds genres so thoroughly (think of his work in The Grifters, Hero, Dirty Pretty Things, Tamara Drew and Lay the Favorite, just for starters). He manages this again here, achieving in the process one of his most succulent successes.

As one might expect in a tale that deal so much with homosexuality, it is the men here with whom we are most concerned. And yet, the few women who appear in any way prominently are brought to fine life by the actresses involved. Especially good are Patricia Hodge (two photos up) as Thorpe's mum, Monica Dolan (above, right) as his second wife,

and a deliciously on-target Michelle Dotrice (above, right, with very large dog) as the bar owner who proves such an aid to the Whishaw character in his time of need.

As for Mister Whishaw (above and below), who comes through with colors flying, if this fine actor ever get another role as juicy as this one, I shall be first in line to see the result. As Norman Josiffe/Norman Scott, he so thoroughly gives over to the bizarre, amazing and anything-but-politically-correct personality of this young man that he earns completely our disbelief, shock and finally enormous admiration.

What a story -- and how very well it has been told! You can catch it now via Amazon streaming. If you're already an Amazon Prime member, it's free -- this three-part series alone makes Prime worth the entire year's membership -- but if not, the episodes are well worth paying for.

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