Even in a great movie year, Scandal would stand out for tackling a notorious case of British political misconduct with becoming tact. But in 1989, until now a year of unparalleled cinematic mediocrity, the hypnotic and haunting Scandal looms like a colossus. Prepare to be wowed.
But not in the way you think. Despite the curious fact that the Motion Picture Association of America had originally slapped Scandal with an X rating (usually reserved for hard-core porn), the film is hardly a sleazy shocker. That is, unless the sight of a few flabby-assed Brit codgers indulging in a simulated orgy is your idea of prurience unleashed.
Scandal may not arouse, but it does provoke — giving startling human dimension to nearly three-decade-old newspaper stories about “the minister, the model and the Russian spy” who brought down Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. That story became the paradigm for tabloid excess up to and beyond the Gary Hart-Donna Rice debacle.
Back in 1963, Her Majesty’s subjects were stunned to learn that War Minister John Profumo had been sharing the sexual favors of model-showgirl Christine Keeler with Soviet naval attachÃƒ?Ã‚Â© (and suspected spy) Eugene Ivanov. The three had been brought together by Stephen Ward, a social-climbing London osteopath who had also coaxed Keeler’s blond friend Mandy Rice-Davies into commingling with his mob chums. (Lord Astor had allowed Ward the run of a cottage on his country estate for some rural hanky-panky.) Though it was later revealed that the Profumo scandal had not compromised national security, Profumo resigned, Ivanov hotfooted it home, the Conservatives suffered a swift election defeat, Ward committed suicide, Keeler served nine months in jail after perjuring herself at the trial of her violent black lover, Rice-Davies opened a string of nightclubs in Israel, and the Swinging Sixties, as they came to be called, were born.
Originally intended as a four-and-a-half-hour BBC miniseries, Scandal feels herky-jerky at times, since it strives to cram the essentials into two hours. But this is a minor drawback to a major, boldly original work. Screenwriter Michael Thomas and first-time feature director Michael Caton-Jones could have exploited the tawdry surface of the tale for a quick box-office killing. Instead, they dug deeper to illuminate character and incident within a vivid historical context.
The film’s opening shot has a radiant innocence. Stephen Ward, played by the extraordinary John Hurt (The Elephant Man), stands outside his London home on a magical blue-sky day, watching a beautiful young woman glide by on a bicycle. This is his time. The repression of the Fifties will soon give way to the sexual revolution. For Ward — eager, naive, doomed — everything seems possible.
Christine Keeler, just eighteen in 1960, feels the same. She’s working-class, with scant style or taste, but Ward will mold her into a plaything for the rich and titled. British actress Joanne Walley-Kilmer, the warrior princess of Willow (in which she costarred with her American husband, Val Kilmer), invests Keeler with a sly mix of doe-eyed loveliness and call-girl calculation; she’s mesmerizing.
Keeler and Ward represent the heart of the picture, both its love story and its tragedy. Ward claimed he never took sex (or money) from the popsies he housed and nurtured for the amusement of his friends; Christine was no exception. But Stephen’s passion for his prize pupil is as obvious as his anger over her craving for drugs and West Indian lovers. Despite the hypercharged eroticism of their world, Christine and Stephen never consummate their relationship. This fact lends their scenes a romantic urgency that stays in the memory, even when the two turn on each other to save their skins. Near the end, Ward can still muster the bravado to tell a friend, “I dreamt her up, and I can make her vanish.”
He was wrong, of course. Keeler was too willful to play toady to someone else’s dream. Christine and Mandy — two paroles on the prowl — didn’t need Ward to continue their sexual assault on the class system. Tarted up and licking their glossed lips in anticipation, they bit hungrily into the upper crust. But the kinky doings of the toffs soon bored them. Neither the bald Profumo (Ian McKellan) nor the burly Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbe) excited Keeler sexually. Like Rice-Davies, she was in it for the fun, the kick. California-born Bridget Fonda is a comic delight as Mandy. What a shame she disappears from the film for great chunks of time. Her court appearance during Ward’s trial for pimping is one of the film’s highlights. Told that Lord Astor has denied their assignations, Mandy retorts, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”
Indeed. Profumo also lied at first, telling the House of Commons that “there was no impropriety between myself and Miss Keeler.” In this scene and later, when the evidence forces Profumo to resign his post, McKellan perfectly captures the wounded pride of a man hoisted on the twin petards of lust and hypocrisy. Profumo’s shame came not from betraying his wife, family and country, but from betraying his class.
His class didn’t let him forget. Though Profumo was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1975 for his charity work, he has never regained his rank in society. The Establishment wanted revenge and took it, most cruelly on Ward. Spurned by his elite friends, he never lived to see the court convict him of pimping. An overdose of sleeping pills spared him that. Hurt’s Ward is an electrifying creation; his ravaged face is the road mark of a scapegoat’s progress. Scandal does something far more compelling than condemn or excuse the participants in Britain’s scandal of the century; it does them justice.