Long before Britney Spears or Pamela Anderson, there was Margaret Whigham, the 1930s British socialite more famously known as the Duchess of Argyll. The only child in a wealthy Scottish family, Margaret’s beauty, fashion sense and string of high-profile romances made her constant tabloid fodder. But it was her extremely public 1963 divorce from Ian Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, that forever tainted her name with the general public.
That “divorce of the century” serves as the story at the heart of Prime Video’s three-part limited project, “A Very British Scandal.” The drama — and what it says about the double standards to which women in the public eye are held — feels eerily timely in the wake of our recent re-examination of how figures like Spears and Anderson have been treated in the media.
The story never fails to drive that message home, but at the end that may also be its biggest flaw.
Although Margaret, played here by Claire Foy (“The Crown”), lived a complex and interesting life full of potentially palpable TV moments, the focus remains on her marriage to Campbell (Paul Bettany, “WandaVision”) and its stranger-than- fiction unraveling. In the first episode, viewers follow the couple as they meet and fall madly in love, driving Campbell to divorce his second wife, Louise (Sophia Myles). The subsequent installments gloss over much of Margaret and Ian’s 12-year marriage: Margaret as a mother, and the small moments that may have kept them together during that timeframe.
Instead, the main beats are also some of the more shocking details from the real-life scandal, as the title would suggest. Ian’s raging moods, alcoholism and drug use paint him as a cold and calculating husband whose charms are reserved for the public. He’s depicted as a man with financial woes and something to prove, and whose collection of wives with pocketbooks matches his curation of preserved insects. A quick dive into the history books and that takes it seems accurate, if not slightly on-the-nose.
For her part, Margaret is presented as a woman ahead of her time whose need to be accepted while remaining relevant sometimes drives her to do ugly things. There’s a sense she desperately wants to make things with the Duke work, and she’s presented as looking outside the marriage for solace only when they don’t. Regardless of her motives, as anyone with access to Google could tell you, those affairs (Ian alleged 88 in total) ultimately lead to her downfall.
Indeed, the bulk of the third episode revolves around the public shame toward Margaret following the reveal of a naked Polaroid picture, in which she can be seen with a man who isn’t her husband. In real life the identity of that “headless man” has long been speculated, but never confirmed, and on that thread the miniseries follows suit.
Over the three-episode trajectory, Foy and Bettany are at the top of their games with emotional performances that will undoubtedly garner attention come awards season. Their driving takes, along with the beautiful cinematography and world-building that went into the period piece are indeed the main reasons to watch. Director Anne Sewitsky’s careful, female-forward handling of the sexual subject matter also goes a long way — it’s impossible to witness the story unfold without anger bubbling up over Margaret’s treatment throughout. Foy’s ability to draw sympathy even when her character is at her worst spars perfectly with Bettany’s delicately layered performance.
However, if the point is to remind viewers of the people and motives at the heart of this story, there’s a failed opportunity to expand the characters beyond previously spilled ink. Finding room to further explore the central romance post-marriage, Margaret as a parent, Ian’s past as a World War II vet, or either of their feelings toward aging may have been a time-consuming endeavor given the limited episode order (a number previously established by Blueprint’s predecessor, “A Very English Scandal”). Yet without them there’s a sense of glossing over the complex human lives driving the story in the first place.
In the end, there’s still more than enough material to engage with, especially for American audiences who may not be as familiar with the events that were reported on so extensively across the pond. That leaves viewers with a well-paced romp in which the action never lingers but it also never quite digs as deep as you’d hope, which may be both the luxury and the limitation of recreating a story of this magnitude: You’re always left wanting more.
“A Very British Scandal” debuts April 22 on Prime Video.