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A Very British Scandal review: Come for drama, stay for Foy

In 2018, Prime Video released A Very English Scandal in the U.S. The three-episode limited series was written by Russell T Davies and directed by Stephen Frears, and it covered one of the most notorious British news scandals of the past 100 years. However, despite the scandalous nature of the show’s story, Frears and Davies worked together to uncover the intimate drama at the center of the series’ famous conflict. In the end, A Very English Scandal managed to do just that.

Now, four years later, A Very British Scandal, a new limited series now streaming on Prime, similarly seeks to tell the true story behind a notorious British news scandal, and notably, stars two well-known British performers as its leads. The resulting show is one that isn’t quite as balanced or consistently enthralling as A Very English Scandal but is still powerful and compelling in its own right.

Made to fall apart

Claire Foy sits at a dinner table with Paul Bettany in A Very British Scandal.
Christopher Raphael, Amazon Studios

Written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Anne Sewitsky, A Very British Scandal explores the turbulent real-life marriage between Margaret Campbell (Claire Foy) and Ian Campbell (Paul Bettany), the 11th Duke of Argyll. When the two characters first meet in the early 1950s, they’re both nearing the ends of their respective marriages. The two quickly find themselves attracted to each other for their own mercenary and superficial reasons, and it doesn’t take long for an affair to bloom between them.

It’s only after Ian and Margaret marry each other, however, that the worst sides of themselves emerge. After marrying her, Ian doesn’t waste any time making his interest in Margaret’s money clear, and he begins lashing out whenever she disagrees with him or tries to hold him accountable for his own mistakes. Margaret, meanwhile, quickly takes it upon herself to renovate the crumbling Scottish castle that Ian has inherited from his family.

It’s Margaret’s desire to make Ian’s castle her own and Ian’s interest in using Margaret’s money to pay for his irresponsible lifestyle that eventually emerge as the poisonous seeds at the center of their marriage. Much of the series’ drama, therefore, comes from the toxic ways in which both Margaret and Ian become fixated on the very issues that have the power to destroy each other and their marriage.

Irreconcilable differences

Claire Foy and Paul Bettany sit on opposite sides of the bed in A Very British Scandal.
Christopher Raphael, Amazon Studios

The more time passes, the more brutal and combative Ian and Margaret become, with each character continually finding new ways to use their own jagged edges to cut the other. It’s not a particularly fun disintegration to witness, and under less capable hands, the series could easily have become a one-note procession of violence and emotional abuse.

Thankfully, A Very British Scandal has Bettany and Foy, two actors who are able to root their characters’ actions in tangible human emotions even when they are at their most enraged and hateful. As was the case with Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw in A Very English Scandal, both lead actors turn in strong work here. That’s true in spite of the fact that A Very British Scandal doesn’t succeed at being nearly as balanced or even-handed as its predecessor.

Bettany’s Ian suffers the most from that fault. The series occasionally introduces elements of Ian’s life that have the power to add dimension to his worst impulses, including his experiences as a POW in WWII, but it never fully explores those sides of the character. While Bettany brings an interesting tinge of constant sorrow to his performance as the character, it’s not enough to stop Ian from becoming an increasingly less compelling figure the further into its story the series gets.

Private battles made public

Photographers take pictures of Claire Foy in A Very British Scandal.
Alan Peebles, Amazon Studios

A Very British Scandal is firmly rooted in Margaret’s perspective from its opening scene, which follows her as she is forced to make her way to a courthouse through a crowd of misogynistic spectators. Her journey to that moment, as well as the grueling public humiliations she is forced to endure afterward, have never felt more timely than they do now. In a time when society is finally starting to reexamine the toxic ways women are treated by the media, Margaret’s battle with Ian in A Very British Scandal’s climactic third episode feels more relevant than ever, which is why Phelps and Sewitsky choose to focus on her story as heavily as they do.

That means the show’s success depends almost entirely on the strength of Foy’s performance as Margaret, who is not only at the center of much of the series’ drama but is also the target of some of the vilest acts committed throughout it. To her credit, Foy deftly rises to the challenge. She brings to life Margaret’s various emotional insecurities and regrets without ever needing to soften the character’s sharper edges or shy away from her more coldly ambitious impulses.

Her performance constantly breathes new life into A Very British Scandal, which suffers from the kind of uneven plotting and occasional ham-fisted moments that its 2018 predecessor did not. As a result, while the series may prove to be too emotionally dour for many viewers, Bettany and Foy’s performances are strong enough to make watching A Very British Scandal a worthwhile experience. Even if it’s not the total knockout that A Very English Scandal was, it still manages to land more than its fair share of memorable blows.

A Very British Scandal is now streaming on Prime Video.

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