It seems so long ago now, though it's only twelve years. In 1989, Palace were a seemingly thriving company dedicated to producing intelligent, relevant and commercial movies in Britain. And for a while, they succeeded. Scandal was a film version of a still-controversial story: slickly made, superbly marketed (I vividly remember the photo spread in Time Out, mostly shots from the orgy scene, that appeared months before the film did), with a strong cast, not to mention the promise of steamy sex scenes. How could it miss? It didn't. Scandal opened in the UK on the same day as Rain Man, and beat it at the box office.
Four years later, of course, Palace were bankrupt, with The Crying Game being pretty much its last gasp. For the story of Palace's rise and fall, I refer you to Angus Finney's book The Egos Have Landed, from which some of the facts in this review have been drawn.
Now that the dust has settled, how does the film stand up? Scandal takes us back to 1963. London has yet to swing: the Conservatives have won a fourth consecutive election and, in the words of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, everyone "has never had it so good". Sexual intercourse may have begun in '63, as Philip Larkin observed, and much of it is practised at the house of Dr Stephen Ward (John Hurt). Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) and Mandy Rice-Davies (Bridget Fonda with an occasionally wobbly English accent) were teenage showgirls taken on by Ward. But soon Christine is introduced to the Minister of War, John Profumo (Ian McKellen). They begin an affair; at the same time, Christine is seeing Russian diplomat and probable spy Eugene Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbe). When the scandal breaks, British society will never be the same again.
The Profumo Affair had a lot to do with the Conservatives losing the 1964 General Election, and the social changes of the Sixties were well under way. Even a quarter of a century after the events, with many of the principals still alive, the story remained difficult to bring to screen, with vocal opposition in the House of Commons and alleged Establishment interference scuppering previous attempts. Scandal was originally intended as a TV miniseries, but had to be downscaled to make a two-hour film. This is to the film's detriment, as shoehorning a complex story into a short running time makes for an inevitably superficial result. Scandal is well-made, well acted (with certain reservations) and very watchable. But with repeated viewings its weaknesses become apparent. Perhaps constrained by libel laws, or as a result of the short running time, but we never get to know what makes the major characters tick. The cast do their best with underwritten roles, though that isn't always very much. Whalley-Kilmer and Fonda come off worst: both are undoubtedly very attractive women, but there must have been more to Keeler and Rice-Davies that enticed Establishment figures to endanger their careers. Reckless lust may well have been the reason, but we get little sense of it here; what we do get is a sense of hypocrisy, of indulgence in everything (sex, drugs) that they purport to condemn.
Ian McKellen took on the role of Profumo to make a point: he'd recently come out as gay and he deliberately played a man best known for being a heterosexual. John Hurt comes off best, conveying Ward's combination of charm and loucheness in the early stages of the film. There is real pain in the moment when he realises he has been set up to be the fall guy: the moment when he says in court "This is not fair" is the one that will stay with you. It's the only point of the film that is actually moving. Michael Caton-Jones, whose feature debut this was, has gone on to make a series of films which are always very competent but somehow lacking real distinction. That pattern was set in Scandal: it's no waste of time watching it, but for the most part it doesn't move you or provoke you to anger as perhaps it ought to do.
In the US, Scandal was distributed by Miramax, who had had a hand in the production. Originally given a X rating (the predecessor of today's NC-17) by the MPAA, the film was recut, losing a couple of the more explicit shots in the orgy scene. Certain anglicisms were redubbed for the American audience: for example, Pimms became gin and tonic. With other distributor edits, Scandal lost about six minutes of footage. Anchor Bay's DVD has "Uncut and Uncensored" in big letters on its cover. But don't get too excited: all that means is that this version is identical to that passed with an 18 certificate in the UK. And "uncensored" is not strictly accurate: when the film was submitted to the BBFC, then-director James Ferman spotted a brief glimpse of hardcore sex in the orgy scene (much to the surprise of Caton-Jones and producer Stephen Woolley) and ordered an optical "blur" to obscure it. Those curious can find this shot at 49:05.
This DVD is fine as far as it goes, though "missed opportunity" are the words that come to mind. The picture is correctly framed at 1.85:1 and there is very little wrong with the transfer. You can't help feeling that this film would have been better made in black and white, but Michael Molloy's colour photography is excellent. It uses filters to evoke a period feel and this DVD a soft look; the opening ten minutes are shot through a gauze that isn't used again after Christine moves into Ward's house. The transfer copes well with several scenes set in smoky interiors, with only very minor artefacting. The film was released in Dolby Stereo, which is preserved on the disc as a Dolby Surround track. There is also a remix into Dolby Digital 5.1. For most of the time the surround is in mono, mostly used for contemporary music (which would have been monophonic anyway) and some sound effects such as rainfall. But note the split-surround effects in the Jamaican shebeen scene (Chapter 14) as Christine comes under the influence of cannabis. The subwoofer is primarily used for the basslines of the songs, though does add impact to gunshots in an important scene. Just for once, this is a remix which improves on the original. There are thirty-two chapter stops, which is fine, but no subtitles, which is not so fine.
The only extra is the (American) theatrical trailer, which tries to sell the film on its sexual content while using quotes to ensure its respectability as well. What is missing is any sort of historical context, either in the form of a commentary or background materials, or both. The events here are unlikely to be remembered by anyone who isn't British and in at least their late forties, so some information would have been welcome, at the very least a timeline of events. Particularly when you consider that, once again, it takes an American company to release a very British film on DVD.