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‘Scandal’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 28, 1989

Sure there's sauciness in "Scandal." After all, this is the movie version of Britain's "Profumo" tabloid affair of loose girls, randy government officials, Soviet spies and innocent scapegoats. But it's not the bed hopping that entices you in "Scandal." It's director Michael Caton-Jones' bedside manner, in this humane, frequently lighthearted parable about falling from grace.

If "Scandal" hearkens to an obscure overseas imbroglio (which, significantly for British viewers, toppled Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's conservative government in the early '60s), it's also oddly familiar, in light of all the Monkey Businesses, Chappaquiddicks and other dangerous liaisons we've leafed through since. The accents may change, but the dirty laundry's the same.

Except, as "Scandal" shows, that laundry isn't (wasn't!) so dirty. Players John Hurt (as osteopath Stephen Ward), Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (party girl Christine Keeler), Ian McKellen (Secretary of War John Profumo) and Jeroen Krabbé (Soviet military attache' Eugene Ivanov) are, like their real-life counterparts, merely guilty of being secret lovers. But caught by public outrage, the flames fanned cynically by London's checkbook journalists, they burn.

Hurt is stirringly gentle as scapegoat Ward, the linchpin figure who introduces Keeler to the world of sexual Fun and Names but creates a brouhaha when he introduces her simultaneously to bigwig Brit Profumo and suspected spy Ivanov. He lends the social-climbing name-dropper a tender, tragic soul.

Whalley-Kilmer has smoldering, sexual-naif appeal as lovebird Keeler, who brings smiles to politicians, lords and even petty-crook Jamaicans (played with vigor by Roland Gift and Leon Herbert).

Director Caton-Jones and screenwriter Michael Thomas (who initially wrote this as a miniseries -- accepted, then rejected by the BBC) introduce comic relief into Ward's and Keeler's trying times. In their salad days, for instance, Keeler, and her smirky-foxy partner Bridget Fonda, play scantily clad American Indian maidens in a kitschy stage number featuring a repetitive chorus of "Ooga! Ooga! Ooga!" Later, as jealous Gift fires an angry volley at Keeler's home, a British neighbor dials Ward and calmly states, "I just thought you should know: There's a black man shooting at your front door."

But the Ward-Keeler relationship, a Pygmalion-like, sexually unrequited friendship, is "Scandal's" central matter, a tantalizingly colorful gray area -- which is made tragically black-and-white by the journalists, politicians and public of the time. What becomes of these two and the others tells you not about them but about us -- the scandalmongers who love to judge from a pedestal.

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