January 3, 2013
Scandal – Britain, 1989
I don’t believe that Stephen Ward was a pimp, at least not in the traditional way. A pimp uses women as a source of financial income and is not known for being respectful toward them. This description hardly seems appropriate for Ward. However, I find myself at a loss to adequately describe his impressions of women. As depicted in Michael Canton-Jones’s film Scandal, Ward is a man who relishes the prestige that comes with having the personal connections that he has. After all, not all osteopaths rent homes from and hang out with members of parliament, and not all osteopaths are given the chance to assist MI:5 in their investigation of a potential Russian spy. Ward seems to bask in the thrill of associating with these powerful men, and he allows himself to believe that he is leading the kind of life that James Bond would envy. Does it matter that one of the ways he preserves his lifestyle is by introducing his friends to beautiful women?
Scandal is the true story of the “Profumo Affair,” a scandal that rocked the British government in 1963 and eventually culminated in both the resignation of the Minister of War and the eventual downfall of the Conservative government. The first half of the film details the beginnings of the scandal. It introduces audiences to the seedier side of London – the Burlesque acts, the philandering politicians and their accommodating, powerful friends, and the women who get involved with them. It is in this part of the film that we are introduced to Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), an eighteen-year-old showgirl who’s the star attraction of a very popular Burlesque show. During one performance, she catches the attention of Dr. Ward (John Hurt). The good doctor begins his pursuit of her immediately, and eventually she is posing for him on his couch while he woos her with promises of liberation and opportunity. I imagine these promises are similar to the ones a pimp uses in a sales pitch. Soon the two of them are attending sex parties together (never as a couple), and she’s being pursued by a number of Ward’s well-connected friends, one of which just happens to be the Minister of War, John Profumo (Ian McKellen). Another is Eugene Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbe), who may or may not be a Russian spy. You can see how this could lead to problems.
Despite its fascinating subject matter, the film never quite finds the right pace. Too much screen time is devoted to sex parties and rendezvous and too little time to seemingly important events. One of these events involves an encounter between Christine and a man known as Lucky. In the film, they spend one night together, and apparently, that it all it takes for Lucky to become so obsessed with her that he barges into her apartment one night and gets into a physical altercation with her then boyfriend Johnny (Roland Gift from The Fine Young Cannibals). I just didn’t buy it, yet the events of that evening have long-term ramifications for all of the participants involved, and to be believable, they deserved more screen time.
On the plus side, the film is well acted, and it has a few rather fascinating characters. One of the difficulties in playing a character like Ward is that he is destined to remain somewhat of an enigma regardless of the caliber of the actor playing him. His appeal to women is a bit of a mystery. He’s not excessively handsome, nor does he speak in particularly mesmerizing tones. What he does do is approach everything with an air of both confidence and ease, as if his actions and the society in which he belongs were perfectly natural. In fact, he makes casual sex out to be as natural as apple pie. He also has a level of confidence in himself which is very seductive. Hurt’s performance shows that he understands this. Whalley-Kilmer is equally convincing as Christine. There’s a particular moment in the film when she looks into Hurt’s eyes and it’s clear that she is in love with him. Her next expression perfectly captures the look of a woman who has just realized that her feelings are not reciprocated.
Films like this can often get stuck between a rock and a hard place. Should they focus on the tantalizing, salacious parts of the story or the political and legal side? Should they try to get to the bottom of the main character’s actions or just report what happened faithfully? Scandal elects to devote most of its time to the salacious, and as a result, the second half of the film feels extremely rushed. Therefore, I suspect viewers will have many unanswered questions by the time the credits roll. Director Canton-Jones does try to make up for this by inserting short explanations of what happened to the film’s key characters. However, they are simply not enough. Scandal is fascinating at times, frustrating at others, and by the end of the film, we’re no closer to the truth than we were at the beginning. Audiences deserve a bit more. (on DVD)