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Hugh Grant Stars in the True Story of 'A Very English Scandal'
June 29, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Hugh Grant (top) has insisted for years that he wanted to ditch the rom-coms at which he is so good, and it appears he's finally gotten his wish.

In A Very English Scandal, which has already aired in Britain and comes to Amazon Prime on Friday, Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, the charismatic leader of Britain’s fringe Liberal Party in the 1970s.

A progressive on issues like apartheid and internationalism, Thorpe gave the Liberals a brief burst of sunshine, relatively speaking, before his career died in the shadow of the scandal that is the subject of this three-part series.

Thorpe was gay, which for most of his life had been a crime in the United Kingdom. While it had been decriminalized by the 1970s, most men remained in the closet.

This is particularly important for Thorpe because he has at least two critical things to protect: his marriage to Marion (Monica Dolan) and his seat in Parliament.

Both are threatened when Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw, left) threatens to reveal that some 15 years earlier, he and Thorpe had an affair.

Scott, who had a tough childhood for several reasons, isn’t unlikeable. He’s just scattered, impulsive and erratic, not traits that reassure Thorpe he can get the younger fellow under control.

So Thorpe enlists the help of fellow Liberal MP Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings). Bessell tries to find a way to buy Scott off, but since Scott holds potentially incriminating letters that Thorpe once wrote, Thorpe suggests the only solution is to have Scott killed.

At Thorpe’s real-life attempted murder trial in 1979, there was testimony that he arranged through another friend to hire a hitman.  

The real-life Thorpe, who died in 2014, said later that this bloke was only supposed to “frighten” Scott. Thorpe did not testify during his trial, at which he and his three co-defendants were acquitted.

Thorpe’s career was over, though, as he feared it would be, and A Very English Scandal has Thorpe quite definitely telling Bessell that Scott must be killed. The money phrase, which needless to say became a big seller in the London tabloids, was Thorpe telling Bessell it would be no different than “putting down a sick dog.”

The Thorpe/Scott story, largely a he said/he said debate in real life, becomes more tangible here through extensive flashbacks.

This gives the talented Whishaw considerable time and space to paint a splendid albeit troubling picture of Scott. It also grants Hugh’s wish, because although a relationship lies at the center of A Very English Scandal, it’s hardly the sort of light and breezy romance that made Grant so memorable in the likes of Notting Hill or Love, Actually.

In truth, the viewer’s first response to this Grant may be not to recognize him, because the rather dour Thorpe looks to be at least 20 years older than anyone Grant played before.

It could be no other actor, however, because the gestures, the twinkle of the eye and the cadence of his voice are as distinctive here as they were in, say, Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Still, Grant gets full credit for making this very different character equally believable.  

The story itself, as the title suggests, probably resonates more in Britain than on this side of the pond, where it feels a bit melodramatic.

But then, we always love to find a good shock wave under the calm and smooth veneer of heretofore respected public figures.

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