A Very British Scandal
Prime Video, April 22, 2022
Apr 22, 2022
By Lily Moayeri
Photography by Alan Peebles
Scandal is never as delicious as when it is upper-class British. The one dramatized in the second season of this anthology series is particularly delectable. Based on the notorious real-life divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll in 1963, the three-episode A Very British Scandal ticks all the soap-y, and the reality show boxes.
A dead ringer for Midge Maisel, the uber-stylish Claire Foy (The Crown) plays Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll, a strong and independent woman who benefits greatly from her industrialist father’s wealth. Once-divorced, with two children never seen in the series, she meets the Ian, Duke of Argyll, played by a charming, if smarmy Paul Bettany (Wandavision) on a train journey. He quickly woos her with equal parts relaxed confidence and extreme flattery. They begin a very public, glamourous and sexy affair, creating grounds for the Duke to obtain a divorce from Oui Oui pronounced “wee-wee” (Sophia Myles).
This all plays out without much to latch onto. But once the marriage is locked in is when A Very British Scandal gets to the good stuff. The Duke, an obvious alcoholic, turns nasty toward the Duchess so quickly that it takes a second to realize, “Wait, what did he say?” It doesn’t take long to realize, however, that he considers her merely his cash cow. “Pay the bills! That’s what you’re here for,” he spits out when she finds writs for extravagant expenses he’s racked up, including a mink coat for Oui Oui. The horrifying thing is that she pays his bills, and for the refurbishment of his crumbling castle and for him to raise a sunken ship which supposedly has Spanish gold [insert eye-roll emoji here].
But just when you couldn’t hate the Duke more, the Duchess does underhanded things like forging notes, telling blatant, cruel lies, and coming up with outrageous schemes that don’t allow you to be fully on her side. This is no woman scorned. The Duchess is a strong, sex-positive, very desirable, quite promiscuous woman, who owns her actions, understands that she is judged for them, and really, does not care. She sees right through her nasty “friend” Maureen played by a delicious Julia Davis who would rather play party games with a wind-up penis than interact with an actual one.
The Duchess cannot count on anyone she knows, including her dear Daddy—bar her closeted, not by choice friend Peter, a razor-sharp Timothy Renouf. In contrast, the Duke has an extremely loyal group of friends, colleagues and employees who defend him fiercely and blindly, a source of steep frustration for the viewer. His entirely offensive behavior, lying, cheating, abuse—substance, emotional, physical, is excused across the board, by everyone, including his maligned ex-wives. The Duchess, on the other hand, is thoroughly vilified, and shamed, at every turn, about every matter.
Foy does a magnificent job as the Duchess. She mirrors her character’s admirable poise in her performance. There is so much to look at and absorb in her subtle moves and facial expressions. She delivers with her understated actions as much as she does with her fabulous plummy lines. Bettany has never been as reviled as this character, which he embodies with such ease, he really does feel like snooty landed gentry. The rest of the cast, although not as omnipresent as the two main characters are flawless in the essential moments they are on screen. Incisive and natural, they play off and into Foy and Bettany smoothly, making for absorbing viewing.
On the surface, A Very British Scandal may seem like it is a feminist missive, but the Duchess’s actions and defense of the same have to do with her self-serving nature, not about society’s attitude toward gender disparity, particularly when it comes to infidelity, not 60 years ago, and not now. That message still comes across, but it is packaged in such a tantalizing way that the three hours of the series simply fly by, at which point, it’s understandable if you want to press replay. (www.amazon.com/A-Very-British-Scandal/)
Author rating: 9/10