While it’s a famous man who’s on trial (hence the “scandal” part), the six-episode project is defined by two women: The lawyer prosecuting the case, and the wife who wants to stand by her husband but is given reason to doubt him.
Infused with a very British flavor despite the involvement of writer/producers David E. Kelley (raising echoes of “Big Little Lies”) and Melissa James Gibson (“House of Cards”), the Netflix project focuses on Parliament minister James Whitehouse (“Homeland’s” Rupert Friend), whose political and personal status are threatened when he’s charged with raping an aide (“Aladdin’s” Naomi Scott), a scenario complicated by the fact that the two had been having an affair.
The allegation and related revelations come as an understandable shock to Whitehouse’s wife Sophie (Sienna Miller), who is plagued by images of the consensual liaison while finding it difficult to believe that her husband could perpetrate an act of violence.
As for proving that, the task falls to barrister Kate Woodcroft (“Downton Abbey’s” Michelle Dockery), who is taking a considerable professional risk by mounting such a high-profile prosecution, one that has implications for the governing party.
Directed by S.J. Clarkson, “Anatomy of a Scandal” does reasonably well in keeping the audience guessing, and fares less so in its liberal use of flashbacks regarding the elite private school that Whitehouse attended along with the Prime Minister (Geoffrey Streatfeild), hinting at a “Boys will be boys” attitude that prevailed at the time and that might have contributed to the bond between them.
At its core, the story is anchored by Dockery, nicely portraying a character harboring her own secrets; and Miller, whose outwardly idyllic existence is rocked in a way that forces her to question what she knows about the man she married.
As mentioned, there’s a throwback quality to all of that, and even the title evokes thoughts of something like the Otto Preminger courtroom mystery “Anatomy of a Murder” back in 1959. It works well enough as pass-the-popcorn entertainment while inviting introspection about shifting ways of contemplating the past behavior of privileged young men — an issue that’s been well ventilated in recent years, perhaps especially around the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Granted, Netflix and its rivals have been churning out similarly themed fare, both in dramatic and docuseries formats. Yet all told, “Anatomy of a Scandal” overcomes its flaws well enough to lay the groundwork for what’s intended to become an ongoing franchise of tightly constructed self-contained thrillers.
The bones for that are clearly there. The trick, as this first lesson in “Anatomy,” demonstrates, is coming up with the right wrinkles to flesh them out.