London. 1961. Doctor Stephen Ward (played by John Hurt) is an artist and an osteopath. He counts among his patients some of the most distinguished men and women in British society, including the Minister of War, John Profumo (Ian McKellen). After meeting two young dancers, Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley) and Mandy Rice-Davies (Bridget Fonda), Stephen becomes their mentor, the Henry Higgins to their Eliza Doolittle.
Under Stephen’s watchful eye, both Christine and Mandy are soon having affairs with some of the most powerful members of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. Christine becomes the mistress of both Profumo and KGB agent, Yevgeny Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbe), along with maintaining off-and-on relationships with drug dealer Johnny Edgecombe (played by singer Roland Gift) and musician Lucky Gordon (Leon Herbert).
When a disagreement leads to Johnny slashing Lucky’s face and then getting arrested for firing a gun at Stephen’s flat, the public learns the details of Christine’s affair with Profumo. With the scandal rocking the British government, Stephen is a convenient scapegoat and soon finds himself on trial, charged with making a living off of “immoral earnings.”
Based on the real life scandal that led to the eventual fall of Harold Macmillan’s government, Scandal is remarkably faithful to the facts of the Profumo Affair, even if it did leave out some of the more interesting allegations. (For instance, no mention is made of an alleged encounter between Mandy Rice-Davies and President Kennedy.) Though it may seem tame by today’s standards, when Scandal was first released in 1989, it was considered to be something of a scandal itself and it initially got an X rating when it was released in the United States. (The scandal over Scandal is one of the things that led to the MPAA adopting the NC-17 rating to distinguish between films for adults and “adult” films. Of course, it didn’t work as a potential NC-17 still carries the same stigma as the X rating did.)
Scandal holds up well as both a recreation of London on the verge of the sexual revolution and a look at contrast between private and public mores. Both Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda are excellent in the roles of Christine and Mandy. Fonda gets to deliver the most famous line of the whole Profumo Affair when Mandy is told that Lord Astor has denied having had an affair with her. “He would, wouldn’t he?” she says. After I watched Scandal last night, I did some checking and I discovered that Bridget Fonda has not made a film since 2002. She is missed.
Not surprisingly, Scandal‘s best performance comes from John Hurt, who plays Stephen Ward as a naive and well-meaning social butterfly who ultimately gets in over his head and pays a steep price for trusting that his friends would remain his friends. Scandal is just one of many movies that proves what a great talent was lost when the world lost John Hurt.