I will admit that Sarah Vaughan’s 2018 novel Anatomy of a Scandal wasn’t on my radar until I saw the Netflix trailer. I was immediately sucked in by the courtroom and political drama and—like any good bookworm—knew I had to read it before the full series became available on Netflix (which it did this past Friday).
Content warning for this book (and series): the story involves rape and portrays survivors having to tell their experiences publicly on the stand. I will say that the portrayal of privilege, psychology, and reality of victims’ stories is incredibly reflective of what we’ve been seeing in the #MeToo movement in recent years.
Vaughan’s novel alternates timelines and perspectives as it changes from barrister Kate to junior minister James Whitehouse and his wife, Sophie, in 2016 to Holly in the 1990s. Interestingly, Vaughan uses first person in Kate’s chapters only (third person in all the others), adding a level of insight into the character’s feelings towards her work as a “criminal barrister… a highly experienced specialist in prosecuting sexual crimes…” (2) and her desire/revulsion with the toffs of London society.
Vaughan creates incredibly complex characters throughout the novel, and I was curious how the Netflix adaptation would portray these internal struggles.
The series was expertly cast! It was nice to see age-appropriate actors who believable could hold the jobs described in the book.
Michelle Dockery (beloved Lady Mary from Downton Abbey) expertly captures the rising rage Kate has as she prosecutes sexual offenders again and again—some cases she wins, frustrated by the ones she doesn’t. While Dockery may be missing the described blonde hair from the novel, in her barrister robe and
“With my wig on and my heavy-rimmed glasses, I know I look asexual. Certainly not attractive, though you may note my cheekbones—two sharp blades that emerged in my twenties and have hardened and sharpened just as I have hardened and sharpened” (Vaughan 2).
Rupert Friend (Wickham in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and Albert in the Young Victoria series) plays the smooth and charismatic junior minister James Whitehouse. Here the book and series vary very little: educated at Oxford, and always part of the inner circle, Whitehouse has been an entitled golden boy his entire life. Not only does Friend look the part, but he also oozes privilege through the screen.
Sienna Miller is the picture-perfect wife of the cheating junior minister, Sophie Whitehouse, and is a perfect choice. There is a level of polish to Miller that reflects the expectations set in the novel. She is also able to capture the growing suspicion and subsequent revulsion towards her own husband who she has been catering to for decades.
Honourable mention must go to Josette Simon as James’ barrister and Joshua McGuire as the prime minister’s director of communications. Both steal whatever scene they are in!
Is it true to the book?
At six episodes—and about 50 minutes each—there is much more space for a mini-series to do justice to a book than often film adaptations do, which is promising.
As mentioned above: the acting is spot on. Not only are the characters true to the book, but they are able to capture the nuance of feeling and personal flaws required.
Not only is some dialogue taken directly from the book, but the series writers have added key scenes with references not only to #MeToo but the generational split regarding consent and cheating.
Deviations from the book’s plot begin small with some information presented earlier in the series than in the novel, and the series has chosen to slightly alter how James and Sophie knew Holly at Oxford. Episodes five and six have entire new scenes that add confrontations between certain characters. The final scene of the Netflix series stays true to the crux of Sophie’s story arc, but nicely circles back for Kate and hammers home the idea of women supporting and believing women.
Is it worth watching?
Given the content warning above, be mindful of the material. Visuals can sometimes be more piercing than reading a scene, in which case you may be more disposed to pick up the book only.
That being said: the series captures the nuance of sexual assault in a realistic way and is an absolute discussion starter. All the characters in the series are flawed and no one comes out at the end unscathed.
While some of the artistic direction comes off as a bit cheesy, the quick transitions from character to character is reminiscent of the short, snappy chapters Vaughan wrote. In addition, the flashbacks are muddled with some starbursts and a hazy lens that reinforces not only that we sometimes can’t rely on our own memory, but also that recollections may vary between parties.
An additional benchmark was watching the series with my partner—revealing nothing from the book ahead of time—and he was able not only follow along, but also pick up on these themes and nuances.