‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ review: Netflix court drama tackles difficult conversations on consent

A still from ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’

In his latest miniseries, Anatomy of a Scandal, David E. Kelley takes his successful formula of zooming in on the problems of the privileged, to shine a light on conversations around consent, in a post-MeToo world.

When James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), a Member of the British Parliament, is exposed as having an affair with his subordinate, his marital life gets caught in what his wife Sophie Whitehouse (Sienna Miller) describes as the “fishbowl of politics”.

The story of the affair, already an item of media frenzy, takes a new turn when the subordinate, Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott) accuses James of raping her.

Anatomy of a Scandal reflects on the issue of consent within relationships by weaving its narrative around the gossip-filled corridors of the U.K. Parliament, the confining chambers of the courtroom, and the awkward silences permeating the Whitehouse residence.

Consent in the dynamic of established relationships and marriages has been a difficult conversation to navigate for most societies. In a 2017 submission, opposing pleas to criminalise marital rape in India, the Centre had said that it cannot be criminalised as it “may destabilise the institution of marriage.” The Centre has since then expressed that it wants to revise its stand. 

Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery), who leads the prosecution against James Whitehouse, reminds her junior at one point, “Lest we forget, we live in a country where raping your wife wasn’t legally considered rape until 1991.”

In order to put its point across on such a delicate issue, the show makes the choice to shift its focus from the accused James Whitehouse, and turns his wife into the narrative protagonist. As the scandal unfolds from Sophie’s perspective, the overreaching effects of James’ actions expand to envelop other women in the miniseries. 

The show’s advocacy gains more ground not when it is not focusing on the gritty details of the crime, but the long-standing repercussions that ensue, and the conversations these women have.

Arguably Sophie Whitehouse’s character arc comes across as the most fleshed-out. Sophie becomes an active participant in the scandal when her physical existence next to James becomes a part of the positive media management. She starts off as the supportive wife, who puts the sanctity of family over her humiliation and choses to stay with her husband. Over the next six episodes, she reels under the media scrutiny, sits through court hearings where the affair is discussed in detail, re-calibrates her opinion of James, and ultimately resorts to “course-correction”. 

Confronting James over lunch, Sophie says, “I will not live my mother’s life. I will not be the long-suffering spouse”. 

Following in the footsteps of previous works helmed by David E. Kelley ( Big Little Lies, The Undoing) the show does justice to at least some of its female characters, and restores power to them in fiction. 

Anatomy of a Scandal
Director: S.J. Clarkson
Episodes: 6
Cast: Sienna Miller, Michelle Dockery, Naomi Scott, Rupert Friend, Josette Simon, and others
Storyline: When a high-ranking Member of Parliament is accused of rape by his subordinate, a difficult court battle ensues that threatens to expose more secrets

However, fictional depiction of violence, especially sexual violence, demands nuance and empathy, which is where Anatomy of a Scandal falters. The seriousness of situation is lost on the viewers when the show pairs emotional conversations with clunky and complicated dialogue. 

“Men were guilty of selfish exuberance. We were guilty of failure to communicate. Does that make us complicit? Because sometimes, I think it was just easier to acquiesce,” Sophie rattles off in a scene that is supposed to reflect her inner turmoil. Unfortunately, despite Sienna Miller’s strong performance, it ends up coming across as a prepared speech instead of a vulnerable confession.

Another way that the show is betrayed by its own elements is through its camerawork. The heavy themes that the show tackles require it to be grounded in reality, and to reflect the trauma that seeps into your daily routine.

When a character is shown to be suffering through an emotional conundrum or stumbling upon memories they thought they had locked away, the camera switches from clean crisp shots to warped imagery. 

The world around Sophie tilts at extreme angles as she struggles to reconcile the public lies of her husband, with the horrifying private truths. However, this happens far too often to eventually feel out of place and jarring in a legal drama. 

Another choice the showrunners made that seems difficult to justify is the multiple times sexual assault plays out on screen. 

Olivia Lytton, who has accused James of raping her, is made to recount the incident in excruciating detail in front of the court audience. The show pairs her monologue with shots from the actual rape scene. Later, when James takes the stand to defend himself, the sequence of events repeats itself to again show the assault on screen. 

Kate Woodcroft’s own experience with sexual assault is also shown in an almost minute-long scene.

These directorial choices beg the question: do we always need to see sexual assault played out so violently to believe the victim? To understand the trauma? 

The depiction of rape on television has been debated because it is often inserted as a scene to move along the plot or a character arc. While in this show, the narrative is centred around sexual assault, these scenes playing out again and again steal the time away from Olivia, whose character is not developed beyond the trope of an ex-mistress, and later, the victim. 

Still, Anatomy of a Scandal is an important show because it goes beyond dedicating all its focus to just the crime at hand, and instead charts a more complete picture of the enabling nature of society. Sophie converses with James’ mother to find out that his ability to lie is dismissed off as a trait inherent to men. Through a series of flashbacks in every episode, we also see how abuse was normalised in the college club that James was a part of. 

However, at the same time, the show is a stark realisation of the fact that television still has a long way to go before it perfects the storytelling of trauma. 

Anatomy of a Scandal is currently streaming on Netflix

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Printable version | May 1, 2022 1:01:08 pm |