Hugh Grant a few years ago said he hated the movies he appears in. One wonders now though if he’s changed his mind. The British actor, so long synonymous with romcoms, appears to be pulling a McConaughey. Ever since his multiple roles in the Wachowski’s widely ambitious Cloud Atlas, Grant has gone from strength to strength whether it be his extended cameo in Guy Ritchie’s underrated Man from Uncle or his Paddington villain. His latest work – the BBC mini-series A Very English Scandal – may be his best yet. Re-teaming with Florence Foster Jenkins director Stephen Frears, the role draws upon Grant’s natural charming, cheeky vibe and twists it into something new and thrilling.
Based on a true story, this three-part mini series from the BBC focuses on former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (Grant). Flashing between the 60s and 70s, it details his homosexual affair with the younger Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw) – a major issue given the UK’s ban at the time on homosexuality. When Thorpe breaks it off with Norman, the latter attempts blackmail. By the end of the first episode, it’s clear the politician’s gay affair is only the start of the controversy.
The script by Russell T Davies is remarkably confident, doubling as a dramatic depiction of a repressed British society and a wickedly funny and sexy comedy. In regards the latter, the scenes in which Thorpe seduces the young inexperienced farmhand feel straight out of Behind the Candelabra with lines like: “Hop on to all fours, there’s a good chap. That always works best, don’t you think?”
Grant is perfectly cast as Thorpe. The actor came to fame playing charmers in films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, but as he grew older switched to playing slimy cads (see the also underrated American Dreamz). A Very English Scandal draws on both elements of the actor’s persona. Grant’s magnetism, not only conveys to the audience why people voted for him, it draws the viewer in. We see why someone like Norman, played with such delicacy by Whishaw that one still wants to follow him despite his character being so slappable, would be drawn to the politician’s charisma and confidence.
Yet, the smarminess is always just under the surface and when Thorpe goes full sleaze, Grant’s more than up for the challenge. It must be said, however, while the actor’s multi-faceted turn is worth checking out, the gorgeous period décor is why one keeps watching. Director Stephen Frears, as evident in Florence Foster Jenkins, is skilled at evoking eras. Everything from the clothes, the haircuts (particularly Whishaw’s), the settings feels authentic. Perhaps, the best example is when Norman hides out in Dublin to plan his blackmail scheme. Given how poorly the Irish capital has been portrayed in British TV in the past (looking at you, The Shadow Line), how well it’s depicted here is a minor miracle.