Anchor Bay // 1989 // 114 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // October 30th, 2000
The affair that toppled a government. The movie that shocked the world.
"What have I done?" said Christine:
"I've ruined the party machine.
To lie in the nude
Is not very rude,
But to lie in the House is obscene."
In 1963, a sex scandal rocked the Conservative government of Harold MacMillan. John Profumo, Secretary of State for War and a rising star within the Tory party, resigned his post after admitting to an affair with Christine Keeler, a London showgirl and reputed prostitute with connections to a Soviet intelligence officer. The ensuing scandal threatened to topple the government and its lingering effects were seen as a major factor in the Tory election loss in 1964.
Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer -- Willow, Navy Seals) is an 18-year-old showgirl performing in a strip club when she attracts the eye of Dr. Stephen Ward (John Hurt -- The Elephant Man, Alien, A Man for All Seasons), a London osteopath. Ward is not a wealthy man, but he associates with some of the most wealthy and powerful people in Britain. Ward's special talent is finding beautiful girls and transforming them into escorts for the wealthy and famous. He does this for two reasons. First, he sees himself as a connoisseur of beauty, a sort of latter-day Professor Henry Higgins helping a succession of Eliza Doolittles become elegant, beautiful ladies. His second reason, stronger and darker than the first, is that he uses these girls as his ticket into the upper echelons of society. Ward sees Christine, and later her friend Mandy Rice-Davies (Bridget Fonda -- It Could Happen to You, Point of No Return, Single White Female), as perfect candidates. Soon they are moving in the best circles, attending gallery openings and dinner parties and bizarre orgies -- all the things that rich people do, apparently.
Among Ward's friends is Lord Astor (Leslie Phillips -- The Jackal, King Ralph, Out of Africa), who allows Ward free use of a cottage on his country estate. Eugene Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbé -- The Living Daylights, Dangerous Beauty, CBS's "Jesus" miniseries), the Soviet naval attaché, is another friend. MI5 suspects Ivanov of being a spy, and they ask Ward to help them gather as much information as possible. Ward, as always, is quite taken with the idea of this kind of intrigue, and agrees to help if possible.
While spending a weekend at the country estate, Ward, Ivanov, and Keeler meet John Profumo (Ian McKellen -- X-Men, Six Degrees of Separation, Last Action Hero), Minister for War in the MacMillan government. Before long, at Ward's urging, young Christine is having simultaneous affairs with Profumo and Ivanov.
As time goes on, Christine becomes disenchanted with her society companions and hooks up with a couple of West Indian boyfriends. When they find out about each other it results in a violent clash, which brings Christine to the attention of one of Britain's many tabloid newspapers. Eventually this paper discovers her associations with Profumo and Ivanov, and breaks the story to the public. This is explosive news, because it appears that there is a very real chance that the security of the entire nation could have been compromised. Profumo initially denies the allegations, going so far as to deny on the floor of the House of Commons that he has had any inappropriate relationship with Christine. Later, amidst a mounting tide of evidence, he resigns from the government. It is important to note that his resignation does not come as a direct result of the affair, but as a result of his lies before his colleagues in Parliament.
The ensuing public outcry and investigation change the lives of Christine and Dr. Ward forever. They are both vilified in the press of the day, and Ward is placed on trial for "living off the profits of prostitution."
A conventional telling of the Profumo affair could make for an excellent film, full of intrigue and colorful characters. Such a telling of the story would be more akin to a James Bond movie or a Tom Clancy novel, and would doubtless focus directly on Profumo and the other "important" people and their impact on world events. However, the makers of this film have chosen a different angle, focusing instead on the relationship between Keeler and Ward. It is presented as a sort of love story between the doctor and his creation. It is a flawed relationship, for while Ward truly wants to see Keeler rise above her social stature, he also wants to use her progress to further his standing with his rich and powerful friends. Telling the story from their perspective makes it human, accessible and riveting.
The direction by Michael Caton-Jones (The Jackal, Rob Roy, This Boy's Life) and the cinematography by Mike Molloy are both outstanding. Every shot is perfectly composed. Characters sit or stand suddenly, naturally, and find themselves in perfectly framed shots. Every cut, every glance, and every angle give important information about the characters and story. One scene in particular shows Christine and Mandy getting ready for a night on the town. A series of extreme closeups shows the meticulous attention they pay to their lingerie, makeup, hair, clothes. It is all done with a sense of anticipation, and parallels those clichéd scenes in action movies which show the heroes suiting up and strapping on all manner of weaponry, and then setting out to conquer. Another visually memorable scene, later in the film, has Ward and Christine sitting in a car on a rainy night, with the raindrops on the windshield forming intricate patterns on their faces.
Of course, none of this would work at all without the actors to pull it off. John Hurt is wonderful as Ward, giving us a character who is a creepy, domineering pervert and a genteel, affable charmer at the same time. Ward is repulsive in his manipulation and lewdness, yet warm and human and strangely sympathetic. We are shocked at his self-absorption as he brags to two police detectives about the details of an orgy he attended, and in almost the next scene we are touched by his pleas for fairness as Christine is questioned mercilessly in court.
Joanne Whalley-Kilmer's portrayal of Christine Keeler is also very good, a mixture of naïveté and ambition, innocence and seduction. Whalley-Kilmer is captivating throughout; through her we can see what it is about Christine that catches Ward's eye.
The supporting cast gives strong performances as well. McKellen plays Profumo as a basically honorable man who at first denies even to himself that he has done anything wrong, and goes on to make his troubles worse than he could possibly have imagined. Bridget Fonda steals her scenes as Mandy Rice-Davies, calculating and coquettish and sly.
Anchor Bay brings Scandal to us in the original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. This is an anamorphically enhanced transfer. The picture quality throughout varies slightly. When it is at its best, colors are rich and vivid and images are sharp and clear. However, a lot of the film is slightly soft. There were a few digital defects present, notably some shimmering and pixelation in light sources such as sunlit windows, but these were limited and fairly unobtrusive as those things go. I thought I detected some minor motion artifacting or blurring from time to time in very fine textures such as hair, but it was hard to tell for certain and very minor if present. I detected very little if any edge enhancement or haloing. Overall it was not a perfect transfer but not horrible either.
The audio mix is Dolby Digital 5.1, and is very good. The rear channels are used a lot more heavily than I had expected, both for the musical score and for atmospheric sounds. The opening scenes of the film take the viewer from a London street scene with cars and buses all around to a smoky nightclub with all the normal incidental conversations and noises.
Extra content is limited to a trailer. The trailer is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is in good condition, with few obvious defects.
As I noted above, Scandal is not a straight historical presentation of facts. While it is not a large detriment, the makers of this film appear to have a clear agenda in mind. Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward are presented here as innocent victims of a political establishment and class structure that was glad to use them and then discard them. The film takes great pains to paint their activities as almost innocent; indeed, Ward is presented as a tragic hero. There is considerable evidence that reflects much worse than this on both of them; however, I concede that whether or not the film corresponds to historical reality is not terribly relevant.
The version of the film that is available on DVD is the original, uncut, uncensored version. In a fairly crass marketing ploy, the words "Uncut and Uncensored" are stamped across a seductive picture of Whalley-Kilmer on the DVD packaging. There is one scene in particular, the orgy scene in Chapter 15, that was edited prior to theatrical release in order to avoid an "X" rating. Viewers should be cautioned that this scene is fairly graphic. I understand the purpose of its inclusion, to show the level to which the privileged classes are just as depraved as everyone else or even more so. However, that had already been established in a more subtle fashion earlier in the film, and this scene strikes me as gratuitous. (On a personal note, if I never see another hairy English butt it will be too soon.)
My main complaint with the disc is the glaring lack of extras. This film deserves much better treatment. Studios need to be made aware that the inclusion of cast bios and production notes is a bare minimum requirement. Also notable is the lack of English subtitles, let alone any other language.
I enjoyed this movie very much, and recommend it with only slight reservations. As might be expected from a movie about a sex scandal, there is a fair amount of sex and nudity. Viewers who object to this type of material may think twice before seeing Scandal. In particular the orgy scene, as noted above, is pretty graphic and off-putting. That being said, Scandal is a very well done character drama. I would recommend it for a rental. Or, if you prefer, the purchase price of around $20 makes this a reasonable addition to your collection.
Movie acquitted on all counts. Anchor Bay is convicted of giving us a disc with no meaningful extra content and a somewhat flawed transfer.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical Trailer