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    Thursday, June 13, 2024

    David E. Kelley takes his love of courtroom drama and messy marriages to London

    Rupert Friend and Sienna Miller (center) in "Anatomy of a Scandal." (Netflix/TNS)

    “The Undoing,” from David E. Kelley, kept audiences glued to HBO last year, thanks to a pair of big names — Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant — playing a wealthy New York couple who see their relationship tested after an extramarital affair leads to a grisly courtroom drama. Kelley is back at it again with “Anatomy of a Scandal” for Netflix, this time teaming with co-creator Melissa James Gibson to go over much of the same thematic ground, this time with a London backdrop and a new pair of actors — Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend, both quite good — toplining the project.

    There’s a lot of redoing of “The Undoing” here, down to the same character archetypes: A beautiful, wealthy wife and mother (Miller) slowly coming to grips with the reality of who she’s been married to all these years, and the slick cad of a husband who denies everything (Friend as a Member of Parliament who hails from a well-to-do family). There’s even a brilliant Black female defense attorney in the mix, styled nearly identically in each show, who deserves more screen time than she gets, played by Noma Dumezweni in “The Undoing” and Josette Simon in “Anatomy of a Scandal.”

    I thought “The Undoing” was dull, largely because Kidman’s character was so underdeveloped, but if you were willing to stick it out, you’ll be pleased to know the six-episode “Anatomy of a Scandal” is a considerable upgrade. Don’t get me wrong, it’s garbage, but it’s high-end garbage and eminently binge-able. That kind of thing has its place.

    Sophie (Miller) and James (Friend) have been together since their undergrad years at Oxford, but their charmed life splinters in middle age when news of James’ affair with a comely young staffer named Olivia (Naomi Scott) is splashed across the headlines: “Top Tory Cheats with Aid.” Things deteriorate further when Olivia accuses him of rape. Michelle Dockery plays Kate, the attorney prosecuting the case, and Dockery sheds all the glamorous snobbery that has served her so well as Lady Mary in “Downton Abbey” to embody a woman far more understated and ruminating in temperament. She’s exquisitely poised in the courtroom, but harboring a secret that’s not unrelated to the case before her.

    Did James assault Olivia? The show doesn’t even pretend to keep you guessing: Of course he did. He just doesn’t see it that way — and that mindset is what “Anatomy of a Scandal” is actually about. That means Olivia isn’t a person with her own point of view so much as a narrative device who exists only to move the story along (I had this complaint with “The Undoing” and its conception of “the other woman,” as well).

    “Anatomy of a Scandal” is adapted from a 2018 crime novel of the same name by Sarah Vaughan, but — depressingly if not surprisingly — there are real-world MPs who have faced (or are facing) similar sexual assault and harassment allegations. Just how this kind of thing unfolds, behind closed doors in luxurious London townhomes and exclusive wood-paneled parliamentary spaces, is what the show is looking to examine, and understand why the women in their lives so often look the other way. There are also subtle shades of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Piggate here, not in the bizarre activities he supposedly engaged in while at Oxford, but more along the lines of how nothing is off limits for these sons of wealthy white families. They are destined for corridors of power. Their status and future are assured. They can get away with anything. And now, they’re running everything.

    Sophie and James are as posh as they come and that’s where the story falters for me. Infidelity among this exclusive British set is par for the course; it’s practically bourgeois to expect otherwise. Headlines about an affair are never OK — you’re supposed to be discrete — but it doesn’t fully make sense that Sophie would be so rattled by the mere fact of her husband sleeping around. Then again, back in the real world, a young Diana Spencer didn’t think the man she was marrying would cheat on her either, so maybe some aristos (and those aristo-adjacent) really aren’t so blase about these matters.

    Miller herself lived through a public cheating scandal in 2005, when her then-fiance Jude Law had an affair with their children’s nanny. Who’s to say whether she’s drawing on that experience here, but she certainly brings a sense of cautious, uncertain heartbreak to her performance of a woman finally, belatedly growing up. Friend, by contrast, is wonderfully hard to pin down as James; he’s not exactly charismatic, but he carries that whiff of blithe confidence and self-regard that these types use to coast through life.

    Where does Kate’s story fit into all of this? That’s the surprise twist and it’s a pretty good one. She’s an ace in the courtroom, with her clipped delivery and barrister’s wig, but away from prying eyes, she’s nursing some very conflicted emotions that are threatening to spill over into her professional life, a duality captured in a striking double image that’s achieved by aiming the camera lens through a glass partition. Other stylistic flourishes — a fantastical moment that sees James thrown backward, as if shot in the chest, when he’s informed of the rape accusation against him — are clunky and don’t add anything.

    I would have liked more of an emphasis on how Kate builds her case, but the show isn’t particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of it all. It’s not a courtroom thriller. Not really. The title says it all. It’s an examination of a wolf in sheep’s clothing who finds himself in the crosshairs, desperate to dodge a bullet.

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