The British Cinema Book
by Robert Murphy
With a rather fussy fastidiousness in character-driven drama, writer-director Julian Fellowes (screenwriter, "Gosford Park") turns in the sort of story that has so much integrity of storytelling technique on its mind that it pays little heed to its essential lack of satisfaction with any of the characters. That is, if we don't confuse the performance of the characters with the characters themselves.
When James Manning (Tom Wilkinson), a successful corporate lawyer, learns that his wife Anne (Emily Watson) was behind the wheel of a hit and run accident that killed their housekeeper's husband, his life, as he has been assuming it all these years, is about to change, drastically.
He knew whose car was involved, because he'd seen the scratch on neighbor Bill Bule's (Rupert Everett) sedan, and he was all of a huff to have Bill present himself to the police or he would... until Anne informs him that she was at the wheel. Suddenly, his sense of the "right thing to do" turns 180%. But his moral compass is a small part of the equation when Anne expresses concern for Bill. "Fuck Bill," the adamant husband declares. "I do," she says.
The coverup of Anne's complicity and shameful behavior are escalated as alibies are agreed on when the investigator comes calling. But worse than taking culpability for a death, Anne's not about to leave Bill, leaving the marriage a ruin and putting an end to his country idyll. Good old Brit James marshall's his inner forces, keeps a stiff upper lip, and takes whatever's left of Anne's concern. Just so civilized, don't you know?
In addition to the exemplary principal players, Hermione Norris does a brief, captivating turn as James' very devoted secretary. She is one of our "actresses to watch," since we saw her in the BBC series, "Wire In the Blood."
Scandal may well get some boxoffice buzz going for this adaptation that seems more faithful to its source material, Nigel Balchin's novel, "A Way Through the Wood," than the marital faithfulness of its heroine. The small scale household tragedy blown up into something momentous may well be sustained by performer power, but shelf life should be as shaky as the quality of the "liars." There is virtually no seed of admiration to cultivate in the tawdry circumstances and I'm left, as I'm sure many will be, with a feeling of a mostly empty experience.