'Anatomy of a Scandal' review: Sienna Miller drama lacks teeth
Anatomy of a Scandal — starring Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend — debuts on Netflix this Good Friday, bringing the full force of David E. Kelley to bear on this latest psychological thriller from the streaming giant.
A masterful storyteller with the Midas touch when it comes to network television success, he has carved his own furrow with shows like Ally McBeal, Boston Legal and more recently Big Little Lies for HBO.
That he has chosen to adapt Sarah Vaughn’s Anatomy of a Scandal with House of Cards alumni Melissa James Gibson, should reassure audiences they are in safe hands, beyond the presence of Sienna Miller in this ensemble cast.
Watch a trailer for Anatomy of a Scandal
It may also suggest that this particular courtroom drama might be either a full-on scenery chewing affair, or something closer to a cloistered chamber piece filled with furtive glances. As it turns out, this professionally polished piece of 'he said, she said' drama, sits in narrative limbo for a long time, never fully committing itself to the premise.
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This series is smartly set up in a matter of minutes, as Michelle Dockery’s Kate Woodcroft paws over legal papers, while an ominous evening storm rages outside. Her workaholic tendencies are quickly established, while across town Sienna Miller’s Sophie Whitehouse attends a celebration with friends. Rupert Friend, who is best known as Peter Quinn in Homeland, equips himself well as her husband James, who is perpetually delayed by party politics, forcing his wife to leave the event early.
David E. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson work quickly to paint an idyllic picture of privileged family life, under the protective umbrella of political connections. Every opportunity has been afforded the Whitehouse family, who have been granted access to world class educations, which in turn has led to a cossetted life of insulated wealth. Thankfully, this is where the fairy tale hits a wall as Joshua McGuire’s Chris Clarke bowls in following some shocking revelations.
In truth, his performance may be the only reason to keep watching, as McGuire has a field day casting aspersions on anyone within ear shot, irrespective of the company they keep. Chris Clarke is such an oily individual, that he makes Frank Underwood look well adjusted. Undermining James at every opportunity, while he feathers his own nest and blatantly seeks political advantage, his flagrant self-interest is genuinely engaging.
The scandal which defines this series, revolves around consensual and non-consensual advances made by one person on another. Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin) plays Olivia, the lady in question.
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Lawyers for each party focus on language, dissect the incident from every angle and try to rattle their witnesses. Flashbacks are used to provide backstories for James and Sophie, while underwritten post courtroom chats between barristers are used as dramatic padding. For that reason, audiences may be misled into thinking that Michelle Dockery’s Kate Woodcroft and Josette Simon’s Angela Regan have more to offer in narrative terms. Unfortunately, after almost two hours they will be none the wiser when it comes their motivations.
Elsewhere, there are some shockingly signposted plot twists which manage to rob this series of crucial momentum. Both Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend work hard in their roles, but Anatomy of a Scandal simply lacks teeth.
As a piece of entertainment, it does everything right, but crucially fails to engage despite some serious talent shaping the story. With numerous narrative threads all aiming to undermine the character of James Whitehouse, while Sophie is slowly revealed to be less than perfect, perhaps the problem is the people themselves.
Audiences need to empathise on some level with any character to find them engaging. Anatomy of a Scandal suffers from a shortage in that department, as it slowly becomes clear how much grey area exists between Sophie and James.
They have both manipulated other people for personal gain, while he has taken it one step further by turning this skill in a profession. Something which is unlikely to ingratiate them to anyone any time soon.
That being said, this Netflix adaptation is not bad, just not particularly original. There is very little here that will surprise people, apart from the occasionally clever piece of camerawork. For a family drama which is being marketed as risqué, this series also manages to feel surprisingly safe.
Taboos are glimpsed and soft focus lenses employed, but with the occasional exception, this subject matter also fails to hit home on an emotional level. In short, this is a rare occasion when screenwriting maestro David E Kelley may have dropped the ball.
Anatomy of a Scandal debuts on Netflix on Friday, 15 April.
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