Margaret Whigham, the Duchess of Argyll, was a British socialite who rose to prominence in the 1930s, long before the likes of Britney Spears or Pamela Anderson rose to prominence. Margaret was the only child of a wealthy Scottish family, and her beauty, fashion savvy, and string of high-profile relationships made her a continuous source of gossip in the tabloids. However, it was her exceedingly public divorce from Ian Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, in 1963 that permanently tarnished her reputation in the eyes of the general public.
“A Very British Scandal,” a three-part limited series on Prime Video, is based on the “divorce of the century.” It is the story at the heart of the project. Because of our recent re-examination of how celebrities like as Spears and Anderson have been treated in the media, the drama — and what it implies about the double standards to which women in the public spotlight are subjected — feels hauntingly current.
Throughout the movie, that message is consistently reinforced, yet in the end, that may also be its most significant shortcoming.
Margaret (Claire Foy, “The Crown”) lived a complicated and exciting life that was full of potentially palpable television moments, but the film’s major focus is on her marriage to Campbell (Paul Bettany, “WandaVision”) and how it came to a stranger-than-fiction end.
Following Campbell and his second wife, Louise, from their initial meeting to their final separation in the first episode, viewers will learn how they met and fell in love with each other (Sophia Myles). Several aspects of Margaret and Ian’s 12-year marriage are glossed over in the subsequent episodes, including Margaret’s role as a mother and the tiny moments that may have kept them together during that time period.
Instead, as the title suggests, the key beats are also some of the more disturbing aspects from the real-life controversy, which serves as the backdrop for the story. With his volatile moods, drinking, and drug usage, Ian comes across as a cold and calculating husband whose charms are reserved for the ladies of the evening.
He’s portrayed as a man who’s struggling financially and has something to prove, and whose collection of wives with pocketbooks mirrors his collection of preserved insects in the museum’s collection. Upon closer examination of the historical record, that point of view appears true, if not little on the nose.
Margaret, on the other hand, is shown as a woman who is ahead of her time, whose need to be accepted while yet remaining relevant sometimes leads her to do unspeakable things. A sense is created that she badly wants things to work out with the Duke, and she is depicted as looking outside the marriage for solace only when they don’t. Regardless of her motivations, as anyone with access to Google can attest, her extramarital affairs (of which Ian claims she had a total of 88) ultimately lead to her downfall.
Indeed, the most of the third episode is devoted to the public humiliation that Margaret has experienced as a result of the revelation of a naked Polaroid photograph in which she may be seen with a guy who is not her husband. In real life, the identity of the mysterious “headless man” has long been hypothesised about, but never confirmed, and the miniseries continues on that same strand of thought.
Over the course of the three-episode season, Foy and Bettany have consistently delivered powerful performances that will likely receive attention come awards season. The driving sequences, as well as the stunning cinematography and world-building that went into the production of the period piece, are the primary reasons to watch.
The sensitive, female-forward presentation of the sexual subject matter by director Anne Sewitsky also goes a long way — it’s impossible to watch the plot evolve without feeling a tinge of rage at Margaret’s treatment throughout. Foy’s ability to elicit pity even when her character is at her worst contrasts admirably with Bettany’s carefully textured portrayal, which makes for an excellent match.
However, if the goal is to remind viewers of the personalities and motivations at the centre of this story, there is a missed chance to develop the characters beyond what has already been written about them. Given the limited episode order (which was previously established by Blueprint’s predecessor, “A Very English Scandal”), finding time to further explore the central romance after marriage, Margaret’s role as a parent, Ian’s past as a World War II veteran, or either of their feelings toward ageing may have been a time-consuming endeavour. However, without them, there is a sense that the story is glossing over the complicated human lives that are at the heart of it.
Finally, there is more than enough material to interact with, especially for American audiences who may not be as familiar with the events that were covered so extensively over the pond as their counterparts in the United Kingdom. So what we get is a fast-paced adventure in which the action never pauses, but it doesn’t fully delve into the depths of the story as much as you might hope, which may be both the luxury and the limitation of reproducing a story of this scope: You’re always left with a craving for more.
“A Very British Scandal” will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on April 22nd.
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