Friday, October 30, 2020

A Very Hugh Grant Scandal


 He’s cute and cuddly, with floppy hair, baby-blue eyes, and the gobsmacked look of a lovestruck teenager. The Jeopardy question would be: Who is Hugh Grant? Actors, of course, are not identical to the roles they play. But after seeing (more than once) such charming British films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love, Actually, I find it hard not to associate Grant forever with his signature romantic roles.

 But Grant is (gulp!) sixty now, and more than ready to put those adorable personae behind him.  He was ambiguous as the supportive (though philandering) husband of Meryl Streep in 2016’s Florence Foster Jenkins. And he’s moved much further into dark territory of late with such TV fare as A Very English Scandal, presented by Amazon Prime in 2018. It is a three-part enactment, directed by the always worthy Stephen Frears,  of an actual political scandal that mesmerized the British press and the British public in 1976-1979.

 Grant (who was a very cute, very young British prime minister in Love, Actually) here plays Jeremy Thorpe, a Member of Parliament who is moving rapidly into the leadership of the upstart Liberal Party. Charming and cocky, he deftly conceals ongoing homosexual flings (wholly illegal in England until 1967) while appearing in public as a progressive statesman with a bright future. In 1961, while visiting a country estate, Thorpe meets a naive 21-year-old stable boy named Norman Josiffe, and feels a strong attraction. When Norman shows up in London, out of work and desperate, Thorpe installs him in an apartment and seduces him into the life of a kept man. Norman (in the stunning performance of Ben Whishaw) is a chap who’s destined to cause trouble. Mentally unstable, he craves beyond anything to be loved and to have that love acknowledged. Though Thorpe was once smitten enough to write him passionate letters, he also recognizes Norman as a liability to his political future. That’s why he eventually cuts Norman loose . . . but there is hell to pay.

 Norman—who now calls himself Norman Scott—tries on various post-Thorpe lifestyles, succeeding briefly as a male model and party-boy. He also, briefly, gets married . . . as does Thorpe, twice. But the always erratic Norman wants public recognition of the affair, as well as a reinstatement of his essential National Health card, which would threaten to expose the true nature of his past Thorpe connection. Stymied by Norman’s growing coziness with the tabloid press, Thorpe comes to an important conclusion. He wants Norman Scott dead.

 Norman doesn’t die. In fact the real Norman Scott is alive and well, as revealed in the series’ inevitable final crawl. But far be it from me to disclose the grim outcome of Thorpe’s skullduggery, as well as the results of the trial that gripped the United Kingdom in the late 1970s. Why is this scandal so “very English”? Perhaps because it tells us a great deal about the English talent for keeping up a façade, whatever the circumstances. And it also implies many things about British class distinctions, and how these enable the upper classes to live lives of their own choosing, while also skirting social and sexual standards to which they merely pay (stiff upper)lip-service. 

 For me both Wishaw and Grant were revelations. I don’t know Wishaw’s work, though I’ll certainly be looking out for it in future. As for Grant, who also stars with Nicole Kidman in this year’s new series, The Undoing, who knew he’d be so good at being bad?

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