Picks and Pans Review: Scandal

updated 05/22/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1989 01:00AM

John Hurt, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer

In the midst of making love, she throws back her head. The mouth opens, the body tenses. But instead of something orgasmic happening, something mundane does: Christine Keeler yawns, though she's in bed with John Profumo, British War Secretary. That's a more telling moment about sex in this mercurial English drama than the notorious orgy that briefly brought it an X rating.

As a chronicle of the sex-and-spies humiliation that brought down the Conservative Macmillan government in 1963 (PEOPLE, April 24), Scandal plays a tortuous tug-of-war between titillation and sophistication. "You're always in such a rush," says Keller to her partner in a postcoital conversation. "I have an army to run," he replies. As conceived by British director Michael Caton-Jones, Scandal is a peculiar hybrid of Masterpiece Theatre and Masochist Theater. To his credit, Caton-Jones has created a fascinating reconstruction of a sensibility as well as a scandal. In 1958, Keeler met society osteopath and alleged pimp Dr. Stephen Ward. Through Ward, with whom she lived out a perverse Pygmalion, she mingled in high society, and her brief encounter with Profumo crescendoed into a tabloid intrigue. As depicted here, the motivations for these unsavory characters are missing, which seems to be the point: International disgrace is only a careless act away.

Although Caton-Jones is an expert at atmosphere, tone is something that he has not mastered. Sometimes Scandal plays like a BBC documentary on London's mod madness. Sometimes it plays like a history lesson for the naughty schoolboy. The camera lingers over every showgirl's scanty costume, and you haven't seen so many phallic symbols in a movie since Sly Stallone fondled his knives in Rambo. As it reaches a crumbling conclusion in the courtroom, the movie disastrously shifts tone again, lamenting a broken romance between Keeler and Ward.

Four exceptional performances give the film such consistency as it generates. As Ward, John Hurt forges drama out of his dissipation, and Ian McKellen, who gets too little screen time as Profumo, suggests the kaleidoscope of contradictions within the cabinet minister.

But in the movie as in life, Scandal belongs to its wicked women. Whalley-Kilmer doesn't impose any judgments on Keeler. Her clear-eyed performance has the authenticity of news footage. As her opportunistic sidekick Mandy Rice-Davies, Bridget Fonda provides comic relief; her courtroom scenes are a hilarious testament to the hazards of instant celebrity. Partly because of such eccentricity, Scandal, for all its imperfections, is remarkably unsettling. Caton-Jones stages sequences with an eerie, nightmarish precision, and consequently his movie lingers in the mind as few features do. Like the incident it re-creates, Scandal makes an impact beyond its significance. (R)

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