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A Very British Scandal- Season 2

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Russell T. Davies delighted us with A Very English Scandal in May 2018. Two and a half years later the show is back with a new writer, a new story, and a new name. Rebranded A Very British Scandal, in a nod to the fact that much of the action takes place north of the border, and with veteran screen-writer Sarah Phelps at the helm, the second season is as much of a success as the first.

The scandal that plays out this season is the high-profile divorce between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. Starting at the trial in the 1960s, before turning the clock back in time to the start of the couple’s relationship, we see their burning fiery passion damped, before being extinguished entirely through jealousy, money-loss, and loneliness. It is clear from our introduction to the Duchess, played with precision by Claire Foy, that her number one priority is to enjoy herself. As her husband grows distant, she throws herself more and more into the London nightlife far away from the cold Inverary Castle, the home she has poured millions into creating with her husband.  The Duke acts more and more maliciously, until she retaliates, and they spiral into divorce.

Foy is, of course, not a newcomer to a period drama, but it is a strength of her acting that she is so easily able to slip from the skin of the very regal and proper Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, and into that of Margaret Campbell, a duchess who has just as many airs and graces, but hides behind them a pernicious and self-absorbed reality. She is a deeply flawed character whose modus operandi is to protect herself and her interests.  At times she does scramble in order to not appear the villain and we see a chip in her mask of charisma. Foy’s skill is in presenting her in all her viciousness but still finding those moments of vulnerability where she reveals the deep wounds caused by the behaviour of her mother, and then her husband the Duke. The music, martinis, and men are just the means for her to try and feel something. It is possible to sympathise with her for that, and for her vilification in the media.

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Paul Bettany plays the temperamental, and at times explosive, Duke of Argyll. At first a charmer who suavely gets Margaret a drink (and into bed with him) we see his descent into anger and cruelty. In one scene he is examining his butterflies, one of which has grown to full size. With no anguish or remorse, he suffocates it in formaldehyde, before brutally pinning its wings down and adding it to his collection, symbolic for not only his violence but his appetite for beauty; beauty that is silent and under his control.

Bettany plays the role with a coldness and detachment that is underlined by the vastness and chill of the castle that is supposedly their home. The characters easily find themselves at opposite ends of the rooms, further highlighting their distance from each other. The hugeness of the Highland landscape is captured in soaring drone shots that reinforce the sense of isolation and unease. Unusual for a period drama is the use of over-the-shoulder tracking shots. More often found in a horror film, they are successfully deployed to enter into the head of Margaret and to feel her fear. Whilst the first instalment of A Very British Scandal leant more to laughs, Sarah Phelps has triumphed with a darker and more twisted story.

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr

By Alexa Sambrook

Alexa Sambrook is a second year French and German student. After joining The Student at the start of Semester 2 of her first year, she wrote for the Features and TV and Film section. She was made TV and Film editor in May 2020 and works alongside Aron Rosenthal. She is passionate about building community in the section at this time.