Unlike the rest of the world, I have never really been in love with Hugh Grant. Even my Dad is in love with Hugh Grant, to the point that he found him “realistic” as the British Prime Minister in Love, Actually. (My father’s interesting relationship with sappy rom-coms is probably doctoral dissertation material for a psych student, but we’ll leave that for another time.) As for me? There’s nothing wrong with him, but I just didn’t feel it. I went to grad school in England and let’s just say I soured on the blinky-eyed Charming Lout Public School Boy routine fast, as I learned it very often came as part of a Jekyll / Hyde package in which the guy, once he’d had a few pints, turned into a misogynist wackadoodle.
Now that he’s got some significant weathering, and is playing a predatory, sort of narcissistic liberal politician in 1960s England who’s seduced Ben Whishaw and wants to have him killed? Cue up a totally different psych dissertation, but I’m in. Like, damn, Papi! Like, wow, I wish I were a boy.
A Very English Scandal is the based-on-true-events story of Jeremy Thorpe (Grant), a Confirmed Bachelor and rockstar member of the House of Commons, who finds out what happens when you attempt to maintain a political career with an inappropriate level of confidence that skeletons will not come out of your closet. Speaking of which, Thorpe’s a closet case with a robust libido and a lot of ambition, so he has a bit of a problem on his hands when an emotionally troubled and financially strapped young man named Norman Scott (Whishaw) drops out of the clouds with an explicit 17-page letter to Thorpe’s mum, detailing their exploits. Thorpe enlists his discreet but comfortably bisexual colleague to help him keep things on the down low. First by hiding correspondence. Then by trying to buy the kid off. Then by trying to have him killed. Hijinks, dear readers, ensue. Big time.
Two things: First, Woe betide you, my peeps, if you have the arrogance to believe that “dirty little secrets” aren’t made a lot more “dirty” by being kept secret. They don’t clean up well. And they don’t stay little. Second, it would really be better if some stuff was not required by society to be a “dirty secret.” Like, some people pretty much prefer the partnership of same-sex people and it might be a really good idea to get over the mistaken impression that this threatens you in any way whatsoever, because it doesn’t, but it can create can’t-make-this-shit-up crazy situations when people are forced to pretend they are someone they are not. Based on my admittedly incomplete data set, homophobia in England is subtly different than in America (ask anyone who went to an upper class British boarding school), but it can be vicious, and being gay was decidedly illegal in the 1960s and 70s, and who knows if any of this would have happened if it weren’t. Arguably unlikely, but people are weird and rife with contradictions. Here’s what I can say: Being Jeremy Thorpe must have been excruciating.
Being the object of Jeremy Thorpe’s romantic attention cannot have been a picnic either.
But you know what? Hugh Grant plays excruciating with tremendous aplomb. The man I have always dismissed as a rom-com-milking sot has, regardless of my disregard, always been top-drawer at playing the painfully nervous, the deucedly awkward, and the chronically twigged-out. In his evolution from blinky-eyed stammering schoolboy to decidedly middle-aged and slightly dissipated kink-meister, he has only honed that skill set. He’s more weirdly roguish and rakish and a tiny bit beaten down and it works. In A Very English Scandal he’s actually kind of hideous, even while one feels for him about the degree to which the establishment drove him to be the kinda-monster that he is. He is wantonly aggressive. He takes advantage of a psychologically vulnerable and considerably younger man. Scott’s apparently 11 years Thorpe’s junior, but in the series Whishaw seems half Grant’s age at best, and he’s in a bad spot financially to boot. Thorpe, while you can’t really use the word “rape,” very seriously pressures the kid into becoming his sex toy. Teary, overwrought Norman Scott’s ultimate consent to the relationship is ambiguous and painful to watch; it’s hard to tell what’s love, what’s attraction, what’s desperation, what’s Stockholm Syndrome, what’s utter confusion, and what’s fear of abandonment, but they all seem to be in the mix.
Thorpe then discards Scott, and subsequently has a colleague (played by the Totes Adorbs Alex Jennings) try to buy his silence and send him away, and when Scott keeps turning up like a bad penny, Thorpe discusses having him killed as dispassionately as if he’s trying to work out a crossword puzzle. He marries twice for nothing but Beard Factor and seems to think he’s clever for having put one over on those women. He is seriously quite an asshole.
And he is nonetheless both sympathetic and strangely sexy. That’s no mean feat. Granted (as it were), Hugh had an embarrassment of riches to work with here: Stephen Frears directing, a great script by Russell T. Davies, fabulous co-stars and above all a plucked-from-the-headlines and totally batshit crazy story involving a politician, a secret lover, a high-profile trial, a conspiracy to murder, a nutter assassin, a very unfortunate Great Dane bitch and the notoriously obnoxious British tabloid press. It probably doesn’t hurt that Grant is no stranger to the pressures and judgments of the tabloids (Frears has called him a Method actor on a par with Marlon Brando; one hopes he didn’t call in hits on too many fragile young men in preparation for this role) but up to now, for me, he’s seldom been more than technically attractive and annoyingly glib. I always had the sense that there was an intelligent person in there, despite some of his roles, but there was a certain level of resting on charm and never being especially authentic or vulnerable that annoyed me. (And yes, I know he does agonizing amounts of backstory-writing and prep and research even for… Paddington 2.) There always seemed to be something defensive about Hugh Grant, an almost belligerently impenetrable surface that suggested that in spite of his very public-facing profession he objected to being seen. Something about him always struck me as… well, really freaking repressed.
So put the man in a role where repression is a foregone conclusion with rather explosive consequences and suddenly the terrain changes. It changes in such a great way that a character who seems to be, oh, I don’t know, a bit of a narcissist-sociopath who feeds on the thrall of younger men? Can come across as everything you cannot be if you’re a narcissist-sociopath: Deep. Vulnerable. Conflicted, like in the conscience sense. A bit pitiable even when he’s being a bully and a bit funny even when he’s not freaking funny at all. I wasn’t a sentient adult during the actual Thorpe scandal and I definitely think filmmakers are always on thin ice when they take on non-fictional characters (especially when they are still alive, as Norman Scott is—he apparently objected to Whishaw’s portrayal just as Whishaw’s character objected to… everything). So I am not speaking about Jeremy Thorpe, only about Grant’s Thorpe, who is a remarkable mosaic of comedy and tragedy, of absurd and incomprehensible, of wanton ambition and a kind of terrible loneliness, cavalier disregard for others and a deep desire for connection. Is he a predator? Kind of. Is he a power-mongering jerk? He certainly pushes his colleagues around like a champ. Is he a complete psycho? He seems to have no compunctions about trying to have someone he was fond of killed for threatening his career. I mean, with the energy he put into that project he could surely have figured out a way to get Scott that damned health insurance card without it being traced to him, but he casually goes straight for murder and demands his friends take care of it for him. Is he ghoulishly manipulative? Um… yeah!
So why is it so… attractive? The scene where he first seduces Scott made me physically squirm, and no, not because dudes were getting it on—truth be told I’m a little disappointed that I’ll never have that experience in this body. But I can remember so many moments like that one (not all of them even in the distant past, let’s tell the truth), where a much larger, much older, much more influential, much more famous, much more overwhelming human had me in a closed room and was not backing down no matter how clear it was that I was uncomfortable and no matter if I sat on the bed and cried. The way Whishaw broke down and the way it didn’t even slow Grant down—look, if I ever put the moves on someone and they collapsed in tears, that would stop me from applying pressure. Grant’s Thorpe is just impatient for the kid to get the hell over it and get on all fours. It’s kind of gruesome.
And yet one cares. Not just about the boy-toy, but about the seducer. No matter how cold-hearted and cruel he might be and no matter how ridiculously he parts his hair. When the letters are out and the trial is in progress and Thorpe’s second wife Marion (Monica Dolan) has him cornered at the dining table calmly asking if she’s 100% decorative or just 85%, she surprises him—why are men always surprised that they are failing to hide things from women they live with? Another psych dissertation—by referring to the infamous letter in which Thorpe calls Scott “Bunnies” and demands he decamp to France. Everyone is focusing on the queer term of endearment, she notes, but Marion’s not: “The last thing you write is I miss you. I think that’s a very nice thing for a man to say, to his friend.” Grant’s face, his bearing, his whole façade just collapse under the weight of a kindness from his token wife. It’s masterfully done and incredibly affecting and forces viewers to circle back to the beginning of the story and ask whether Jeremy Thorpe, sexual bully and possible murder conspiracist, would have been a totally different Jeremy Thorpe in a world where sleeping with whomever he chose to sleep with would not have ended his career and put him in prison. Maybe. Maybe not. We can’t really know. There are certainly plenty of manipulative people whose love lives aren’t demonized by the public. But you get a glimpse, in that moment, of what might be under the glib, impenetrable surface Grant has tended to cultivate and which works for him so brilliantly in a character who must live an exceptionally defended existence. And it’s something sensitive and perhaps easily bruised and it’s rather melting to watch.
Hugh Grant, we don’t disagree with you: Playing comic characters is at least as difficult as high-drama ones. No one’s saying it isn’t. But for real, even if it’s for telly, please never turn down a chance to play a really dark, torqued character, or to work with Stephen Frears again. For some of us, you’ve just finally become legit.
A Very English Scandal is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.