Back in 1963, the British public was stunned to learn that War Minister John Profumo had been sharing the sexual favours of model-showgirl Christine Keeler with Soviet naval attache (and suspected Russian spy) Eugene Ivanov.
The three had been brought together by Stephen Ward, a social-climbing London osteopath who had also coaxed Keeler’s blonde friend Mandy Rice-Davies into commingling with his nob chums (Lord Astor had allowed Ward the run of a cottage on his country estate for some rural hanky-panky).
Though it was later revealed that the Profumo scandal had not compromised national security, Profumo resigned, Ivanov hot footed it home, the Conservatives suffered a swift election defeat, Ward committed suicide, Keeler served nine months in prison after perjuring herself at the trial of her violent black lover, Rice-Davies opened a string of nightclubs in Israel, and the Swinging Sixties, as they came to be called, were born.
Originally intended as a four-and-a-half hour BBC miniseries, Scandal feels disjointed at times, since it strives to cram the essentials into two hours. But this is a minor drawback to a major, boldly original work.
The film’s opening shot has a radiant innocence. Stephen Ward (John Hurt) stands outside his London home on a magical blue-sky day, watching a beautiful young woman glide by on a bicycle. This is his time.
The repression of the Fifties will soon give way to the sexual revolution. For Ward – eager, naive, doomed – everything seems possible.
Christine Keeler, just 18 in 1960, feels the same. She’s working-class with scant style or taste, but Ward will mould her into a plaything for the rich and titled. Joanne Whalley-Kilmer invests Keeler with a sly mix of doe-eyed loveliness and call-girl calculation. She’s mesmerising.
Keeler and Ward represent the heart of the movie, both its love story and its tragedy. Ward claimed he never took sex (or money) from the girls he housed and nurtured for the amusement of his friends; Christine was no exception.
But Stephen’s passion for his prize pupil is as obvious as his anger over her craving for drugs and West Indian lovers.
Despite the hypercharged eroticism of their world, Christine and Stephen never consummate their relationship. This fact lends their scenes a romantic urgency that stays in the memory, even when the two turn on each other to save their own skins.
But Christine and Mandy didn’t need Ward to continue their sexual assault on the class system. Tarted up and licking their glossed lips in anticipation, they bit hungrily into the upper crust. But the kinky doings of the toffs soon bored them.
Neither the bald Profumo (Ian McKellan) nor the burly Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbé) excited Keeler sexually. Like Rice-Davies, she was in it for the fun and the kick.
California-born Bridget Fonda is a comic delight as Mandy. What a shame she disappears from the film for great chunks of time. Her court appearance during Ward’s trial for pimping is one of the film’s highlights. Told that Lord Astor has denied their assignations, Mandy retorts, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”
Indeed, Profumo also lied at first, telling the House of Commons that “there was no impropriety between myself and Miss Keeler”. In this scene and later, when the evidence forces Profumo to resign his post, McKellan perfectly captures the wounded pride of a man hoisted on the twin petards of lust and hypocrisy.
Profumo’s shame came not from betraying his wife, his family and his country, but from betraying his class. His class did not let him forget.
Though Profumo was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1975 for his charity work, he never regained his rank in society. The Establishment wanted revenge and took it, most cruelly on Ward.
Spurned by his elite friends, he never lived to see the court convict him of pimping. An overdose of sleeping pills spared him that.
Oliver Ford Davies
Jennifer Scott Malden