Warning: The following contains graphic details of sexual assault which some readers may find upsetting.
#TimesUp, #MeToo, I May Destroy You, The Morning Show, The New Yorker's "Cat Person", babe.net’s controversial story about Aziz Ansari. In recent years all of these, to varying degree, have opened the floodgates to more nuanced discussions about sexual misconduct, consent, privilege and power dynamics. Throwing its hat in the ring to add impactful discourse is Netflix’s latest bingeable offering, Anatomy Of A Scandal. Helmed by the creators of Big Little Lies and bolstered by a starry British cast of Sienna Miller, Michelle Dockery and Rupert Friend, the six-part series focuses on sexual scandal among Britain’s political elite, undeniably missing the mark in many areas but asking some eye-opening questions.
"What do we say about Whitehouses?" A father rouses his young son, inciting what feels like a routine family chant. "They always end up on top!" returns the boy in a singsong manner. It shouldn’t be insidious but it is. The idea that a family name can have such currency that however despicable the act – however great the scandal – privilege will catapult its owner back into standing position like a roly-poly toy. Every. Single. Time.
James Whitehouse (Friend) seemingly has the perfect life. He’s a prominent British politician, best buds with Prime Minister Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streatfeild), happily married to his university sweetheart, Sophie (Miller), with whom he shares two beautiful children, living in a beautiful property on Downing Street. That is when a scandal threatens to collapse his charmed existence. News has broken that James has had a five-month affair with a younger coworker, parliamentary researcher Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott). Additional sordid details – sex in the parliamentary lift? – make it an even harder pill to swallow for doting wife Sophie but, like a portrait of unwavering loyalty, she swallows it all the same as he croons at her that it meant nothing. But the whole time you get the feeling that there’s more to this story. And, of course, there is.
The dark turn we’re expecting: we discover that Olivia has accused James of rape and it will go to trial, with steely prosecutor Kate Woodcraft (Dockery) responsible for bringing James to justice. Here is the first major bugbear of the series, which is based on Sarah Vaughan’s bestselling novel of the same name and recalls her experiences as a political correspondent: it’s not immediately clear who has done wrong and where the justice should fall. For far too long – seemingly to keep the viewer guessing, like a teetering whodunnit (which feels wholly inappropriate in a sexual assault story) – we are offered no easy condemnation, with Olivia and James each telling the jury their own harrowing side of the story while Sophie, grimacing, watches on from the courtroom gallery. As they tell their stories on the witness stand, dramatisations bring to life what each person 'experienced'. From Olivia’s point of view, of course, it is rape. We see her push James away before he calls her a cocktease, biting her and ripping her clothing. It is disturbing but even more so is the subsequent, stomach-turning decision to serve up a minutes-long sequence from the point of view of the perpetrator, dramatising the same scene but this time with James' interpretation that Olivia seduced him and that she desperately wanted sex. It’s an empathetic viewpoint we never needed. The show homes in on James’ white male privilege but always stops short of declaring him the outright villain or a bad person. And Olivia’s point of view becomes more of an afterthought, just as real-life cases tend to render victims.
Then there’s the over-stylisation and often cringe aesthetic flourishes. Some laughably ridiculous moments see James and Sophie receiving bad news and being violently propelled backwards to smack the pavement, as if physically winded by the impact of the revelation. It’s distracting, to say the least. Wild, unbelievable twists later in the series further remove the whole thing from reality.
The series feels timely in the sense that it presents an alternate reality where British politicians might actually be punished for their misdemeanours, sleaze and corruption. If there’s anything the series does well, it's an eye-opening examination of how the British judicial system deals with consent, specifically how it tackles so-called 'grey area' consent: all the sexual violence that lies between the law’s definition of rape and not rape. It might take six episodes but eventually the show does take its stance – just a little limply and a little too late.
Anatomy Of A Scandal airs on Netflix on 15th April