‘A Very British Scandal’ Review: Claire Foy Shines in Prime Video Miniseries

A duke and duchess go to war in Prime Video’s A Very British Scandal, whose subject is the acrimonious 1963 split between Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, and her husband, Ian Cambell, the Duke of Argyll. The well-crafted show’s top-notch cast includes The Crown’s Claire Foy as the irrepressible duchess. WandaVision’s Paul Bettany stars as her cruel husband. But the characters they play are so unpleasant that some viewers may struggle to make it through this three-episode series.  

‘A Very British Scandal’ examines a real-life tabloid scandal

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When A Very British Scandal opens, Margaret and Ian’s divorce is front-page news in the British press. Margaret is headed to court to take the stand in the highly-publicized case, which included allegations of infidelity on both sides. There’s also one damning piece of evidence against the duchess: a Polaroid of her performing a sex act on an unidentified man. 

It’s hardly where Margaret thought she’d end up when he met Ian more than a decade earlier, when both were married to other people. Their attraction to each other is immediate, though there are hints that she’s just as interested in his crumbling ancestral castle in Scotland as she is in him. 

They marry, but the honeymoon is short. Ian is a World War II hero suffering from PTSD from his time as a Nazi POW. Lurking behind his veneer of upper-crust charm is an abusive, alcoholic drug addict. Ian uses his wife’s inheritance to fund his quixotic efforts to raise a sunken Spanish treasure ship. An increasingly unhappy Margaret spends more and more time in London, and in the arms of other men. She sinks her remaining energy into renovating Inveraray Castle. Then, she discovers Ian’s children from his previous marriage stand to inherit the estate. To protect her interests, she makes a choice that sets them on the road to divorce. It ends with both of them slinging mud at each other in court.

‘A Very British Scandal’ is darker, less funny than ‘A Very English Scandal’  

Paul Bettany and Claire Foy sitting at a bar in 'A Very British Scandal'
‘A Very British Scandal’ Christopher Raphael/SCANDAL PRODUCTIONS LIMITED & BLUEPRINT TELEVISION LIMITED & CPT Holdings, Inc.

A Very British Scandal comes from some of the same producers as 2018’s Emmy-winning A Very English Scandal. That show was a sharply-observed examination of the clandestine affair between a British politician Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and a much-younger stable boy (Ben Whishaw). But aside from a similar name and production team, A Very British Scandal has little in common with its predecessor. 

For one, it’s less funny than A Very English Scandal. That show injected a healthy dose of dark humor in its story of murder-for-hire gone wrong. A Very British Scandal strikes a grimmer tone. Margaret and Ian are both unlikable, damaged people who can’t help but hurt those around them. And despite flashes of mid-century glamour – the stylish Margaret never fails to look put together, even when her world is falling apart – the world these characters inhabit is dark and depressing. 

Claire Foy shines as the Duchess of Argyll

Claire Foy wearing a hat and a fur stole and holding a champagne coupe in 'A Very British Scandal'
‘A Very British Scandal’ | Alan Peebles/ SCANDAL PRODUCTIONS LIMITED & BLUEPRINT TELEVISION LIMITED & CPT Holdings, Inc.

A Very British Scandal clearly wants viewers to sympathize with Margaret, who is treated horribly by her husband and the press (though the show’s suggestion that she was the first woman to be publicly shamed by the U.K. mass media is questionable). Foy shines as a complex, misunderstood woman whose refusal to be ashamed of her sexuality put her out of step with the times in which she lived. But the show doesn’t shy away from highlighting her many flaws. She was inflexible, conniving, and occasionally cruel, as seen in the way she casually drags her father’s new wife into her divorce drama. 

Ian is a sociopathic cad, and Bettany is compelling whenever he appears on screen, whether he’s charming an invitation to White’s out of his future father-in-law or cruelly mocking Margaret’s stutter. In one final meeting with his wife before they head to court, he admits that he doesn’t “feel anything really. I never have.” The battle with Margaret is the “closest I’ve ever got to feeling alive,” he adds. It’s one of the rare times where we glimpse what makes Ian tick, and the show might have benefited from more moments like it. A Very British Scandal hints at trauma in both Ian and Margaret’s pasts. (It would have been nice to see more of Phoebe Nicholls as Margaret’s emotionally withholding mother.) But it never delves too deep, leaving viewers with a hazy picture of two toxic people locked in a marriage that was doomed to fail. 

A Very British Scandal is streaming on Prime Video. 

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