An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Scandal (1989)
- Credit: Archant
Spectacle counts for a lot these days but films that tell a good story with engaging characters can often provide a more rewarding experience. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
Scandal; dir: Michael Caton-Jones; starring: John Hurt, Joanne Whalley, Bridget Fonda, Ian McKellen, Leslie Phillips, Roland Gift, Jeroen Krabbe. Cert: 15 (1989)
It was the scandal that not only disgraced a high-flying government minister but it unseated a Tory prime minister, who, only a few years earlier, had informed the nation: “You’ve never had it so good”.
But, the real victim was society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward who committed suicide during a high-profile Old Bailey trial for supposedly living off immoral earnings. This is the view taken by Michael Caton-Jones in his atmospheric and engaging film Scandal.
The movie works because he takes the trouble to anchor the events in the time in which it is set. He knows that context is everything. We get to see that in the early 1960s, London was undergoing fundamental social change. Add to that nervousness generated by the Cold War in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and you have a political powder keg.
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This is a story that has everything: sex, spies and the aristocracy behaving badly. To modern eyes it may seem extraordinary that Stephen Ward could be tried for living off immoral earnings when no money was changing hands but the film points out that this was his punishment for being indiscrete.
Stephen Ward was a man who wanted to be part of the ‘in-crowd’. He wanted to be a major player in London’s party set. He came from a minor public school and wanted to become a key figure in London life. He found that he could charm fashionable young women and then gained a reputation for introducing them to rich, older men on London’s party scene.
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He loved being a modern-day Henry Higgins to an ever-changing roster of Eliza Doolittles. He would shape and groom them, guiding them through a twilight world of cabaret clubs, house parties and weekend trips to the country. Model and dancer Christine Keeler was one of his favourite projects – so much so that she and her fellow dancer Mandy Rice-Davies shared a mews flat with Ward in London’s fashionable West End.
The film works because the film is a gripping blend of story and character. Caton-Jones creates a believable world for these larger-than-life personalities to inhabit. Those all-important people are played with touching humanity by a terrific cast.
John Hurt brilliantly captures the naivety, the neediness and the voyeuristic nature of Stephen Ward. He makes him into a crumpled but lovable reprobate while Ian McKellen’s minister of war John Profumo is more calculating but turns out to be equally naïve.
Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies are vividly brought to life by Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda who have a great time giving their roles a distinct personality. Both are dazzled by the bright-lights of London but Fonda’s Mandy Rice-Davies is a better judge of character whereas Joanne Whalley’s Christine Keeler is much more seduced by the important people and the wayward lifestyles she gets to be a part of.
The real problems start when she manages, with Stephen’s help – along with MI5 – to share a bed with John Profumo and Russian naval attaché Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbe). It is at this point their sexual shenanigans become a security risk.
Michael Caton-Jones has created a film which displays a great deal of sympathy for Ward who was an easy scapegoat for an establishment which had been caught with its collective trousers down. The trial revealed that it wasn’t just Profumo who had a wandering eye, the top echelons of London society seemed to be engaged in a series of illicit sexual relationships.
Caton-Jones also makes the point that nobody minded about all the bed-hopping until it started appearing on newspaper front pages. Scandal is a film about relationships, it’s about trust and what happens when people feel betrayed or let-down.
Both Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward were abandoned by their friends and were used by forces beyond their control. Scandal opens a window on the world of the early 60s and offers us a fascinating real-life story and nuanced career best performances from John Hurt and all the lead cast.
As mesmerising as this film is, you have to wonder, how much there is still to be told, as the official documents remain under lock and key – despite the fact that the 30 year rule should have released the files years ago.