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‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ Review: Netflix Limited Series Is a Rich Tale of Consent and Accountability

Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend star in David E. Kelley’s story of a British MP accused of sexual assault

Sexual Consent. The notion of what it is, and isn’t, and how that slippery definition can be determined in a British court of law, the workplace and on the domestic battleground, propels the new hybrid hot-topic limited series “Anatomy of a Scandal.”

Over six tightly-woven episodes that are both juicy and judicial, this Netflix show offers meaty roles for its high profile British cast led by forty-somethings Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend and “Downton Abbey”‘s favorite entitled sister Michelle Dockery. Adapted from Sarah Vaughan’s 2018 psychological thriller novel, and set in England, “Anatomy of a Scandal” resembles a posh BBC Oxbridge mystery — but has Emmy winner David E. Kelly onboard to write Episode 1 and executive produce, giving it that American “Big Little Lies gloss.

The triangulated tale unfolds in two timelines. In the present, posh M.P. James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) – the sexiest Tory in the House of Lords — has been shagging his research assistant, Olivia (Naomi Scott). Once discovered, Whitehouse lamely tells his stunning wife Sophie (Sienna Miller) and mother of his two perfect children, that the affair meant nothing to him. Right! After 12 years of marriage, she rises to the occasion in public, submitting to the role of long-suffering politician’s wife in the tradition of Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards and Jackie Kennedy. The stakes rise when Olivia accuses Whitehouse of rape during an elevator interlude, placing him in the dock opposite a scrupulous and be-wigged Prosecutor Kate Woodcroft (Dockery), who has a briefcase full of her own secrets, highlighted and annotated.

Meanwhile, the plot toggles back to Mr. and Mrs. Whitehouse’s Oxford glory days, where Young Sophie sets her sights on golden boy James (Ben Radcliffe) the moment their eyes meet. Buried in that past, in distant memories of a night of end-of-year partying, are layers of secrets and lies, betrayals and false alibis. No doubt, under Kate’s unforgiving gaze, and Sophie’s gradual awakening, past horrors will collide with current crimes.

Not to be confused with the Claire Foy bit of beautiful nastiness opposite Paul Bettany as the notorious Duke and Duchess Argyll in Amazon’s “A Very British Scandal,” this Netflix series is a complicated, cerebral yet entertaining work of untangling our thorny #MeToo moment. It also calls to task a legacy of questionable consent, rape and drug abuse among the privileged set who’ve risen to the British halls of power all the way to 10 Downing Street.   

As the series’ fulcrum, Miller compels. Will the gorgeous, splendidly charming, yummy mummy bow her head and accept the repulsive role of long-suffering politician’s wife – even when faced with the truth? Or will she rebel and pull the rug out from under James (with their two children as collateral damage)?

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Netflix

Dockery could easily have played that role, too, but instead is cast against type. Her tense, no-nonsense prosecutor is often seen exiting the London downpours like a wet dog. (It takes a lot to de-glam Dockery.) Not only is Kate damaged goods, still struggling to process a sexual assault decades before at university, she’s having an affair with a married man who was once her superior. Gradually, she realizes the parallels between her life and that of her star witness Olivia. Kate may ultimately crack the case but not before it cracks her.

In the crosshairs is posh, privileged, polished Tory MP Whitehouse. His name is a bit on the nose – people in white houses shouldn’t play in the mud. And he can’t help himself, because a facile lie has always saved him from repercussions. The perfectly-cast Friend, a standout as the loopy son of Joseph Stalin in Armando Iannucci’s “Death of Stalin,” is drop-dead handsome. Flaws? James has a few. He’s a little short on chin – and similarly shy on ethics when it comes to keeping his tailored trousers zipped.

Sex, privilege and politics drive the plot forward. As directed by S.J. Clarkson, the suspense builds from episode to episode as these three complicated, well-drawn characters knock against each other – in court, in private and in memory. Not only is the issue of sexual consent in the #MeToo era put under the microscope, the advantage taken by the privileged and the elite’s ability to escape accountability resonates in our current season of bold-faced lies as legitimate communication is taken to task. The need for consent is absolute, but comeuppance is also immensely satisfying.

 “Anatomy of a Scandal” debuts on Netflix on April 15th.