It should come as no surprise that a six-part limited series starring Michelle Dockery and Sienna Miller soared straight to the number one spot on Netflix this week – we Brits love a good courtroom drama. But despite its initial promise, Anatomy of a Scandal soon started unravelling, and the plot became as messy and confusing as Sophie (Miller) and James’ (Rupert Friend) hideous wallpaper.
Perhaps you think I’m being harsh? There are, after all, a few glimmers of gold to be found, including Sophie’s impeccable wardrobe and, more importantly, lessons around consent. But all of that falls short because of how it so blatantly brushes over its central theme: rape.
Firstly, we see and hear very little from the accuser herself. After Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott) presents evidence in court and is cross-examined by the defence, she doesn’t feature in the series at all. We don’t get to see her go through the ordeal of reporting the crime in the first place. We don’t get to see the agonising effects sexual assault has on its victims. We don’t see how she deals with the inevitable outcome of James winning the court case.
Instead, the series is focused on a privileged, white politician who believes he is entitled to anything and anyone. Which, yes, is part of the point they’re making about consent. But why should the man get more airtime than the woman he attacked?
I was thankful that they decided to at least have the jury rule in favour of James. Because this is a reality most sexual assault survivors, myself included, know all too well. Though, in all honesty, it is doubtful Olivia’s case would have ever gotten to the stage it did at all. In fact, only 1 in 100 rape cases reported to the police result in a charge, and in 2020 more than a fifth of rape referrals were “administratively finalised” by the Crown Prosecution Service, meaning they were closed without action against the suspects.
As the series progresses, we then discover that Olivia’s lawyer Kate (Dockery) is not only invested in the case from a professional standpoint, but because she, too, was raped by Mr Whitehouse during her uni days. So how did James and Sophie not recognise her at first? Why, she changed her name, of course! Oh, and James has attacked so many women by this point it’s hard to differentiate between them.
At this stage of the show, I was ready to throw my shoe at the television. This “plot twist” is farcical, to say the least. As if the case conveniently landed in Kate’s lap. As if she, a serious lawyer at the top of her game, would risk it all over her abuser, and give him yet more control over her life. As if any woman who has experienced sexual assault or rape gets to personally take down their attacker and see that justice is served.
It’s hard to see what the point of it was, beyond creating a dramatic gear shift. It certainly wasn’t about illustrating the severity of James’ crimes. It certainly wasn’t about bolstering women who have suffered at the hands of men, letting them know they are not alone.
Then there’s the ending itself, which was just as synthetic and lazy as the aforementioned plot twist. As viewers saw in one of the many flashbacks to their Oxford days (which were most definitely modelled on Laura Wade’s 2010 play Posh, which was later adapted into the film The Riot Club) we saw how the future prime minister encouraged a member of the Libertines club to jump to his death after the pair had shot heroin together. A young James then helps his pal get off Scot-free. In an attempt to redeem herself from her complicity, Sophie offers Kate a “gotcha!” moment, as she leaks the story to the press.
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Now, if we’re looking at this purely from a dramatic point of view, of course it’s satisfying that James (and the PM, for that matter) finally gets his comeuppance. But for those who have endured sexual crimes, it’s mere fantasy and, actually, is a disservice to them.
We know that men, especially wealthy ones, will more often than not get away with it. We know that, sadly, we probably won’t ever get the justice we deserve.
That’s not to say that fantasy doesn’t ever have a role in these types of stories. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, for example, is a masterclass in how the genre can be applied to such a weighty topic. But Anatomy of a Scandal just didn’t pull it off. Instead of using the opportunity to raise awareness and demonstrate any nugget of truth when it comes to what sexual assault survivors have to go through, it glossed over it and reduced it to a flimsy narrative tool.
If you identify with any of the themes in this article, help is available at Rape Crisis