Scandal (1989)

Scandal (1989), directed by Michael Caton-Jones.

A society doctor takes in a 17-year-old dancer and promotes her "career", which is partying with the rich and famous. He's not her pimp or her lover, just a friend whose pleasure comes from knowing and mixing with the elite set, doing them favors and getting favors in return.

A pair of inconvenient alliances draws attention from the authorities: she's been sleeping with both the Secretary for War and a Russian military attaché, probably a spy. Oops. That's a security problem.

This is the Profumo affair, the British political sex scandal by which all others are measured. Outraged, the establishment lashed out at the doctor and tried him for profiting from sex work. Which probably wasn't true, but it was an ugly proceeding. He committed suicide the last day of the trial and the Government resigned the next year, exhausted by scandal.

The film poster is adapted from a famous glamor pose by Christine Keeler, the key figure in the scandal:

This is not a thriller, either criminal or sexual or even political. It's more of a tragic romance, driven by fine performances from John Hurt and Joanne Whalley. It's a meditation on the nature of sex work: on those who provide the services, those who consume them, and those who facilitate.

Keeler is not actually a full-time prostitute, she just gets the society and some expenses. She doesn't mind the sex work, although we catch her yawning in bed with the Minister. The old story: in a man's world she gets plenty of sex, but needs something beyond that.

The early 1960s period detail is nicely done, and we constantly boggle at the orgiastic excess of the upper crust. What brought down Profumo was not his infidelity, but that he lied about it in Parliament. That was the unforgivable sin.

Quite a lot of nudity and passion from both Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda. I think Whalley, last seen in Willow (1988) and Kill Me Again (1989), is one of the most beautiful actresses of those years.

Ian McKellen is the hapless Profumo. The historically accurate balding pattern makes him look like a timid samurai.

I watched this again because of something I read in an obituary of Mandy Rice-Davies, the roommate played by Bridget Fonda in the film. After he resigned in disgrace, Profumo went to the poor part of town and volunteered cleaning toilets and doing other quiet good works for the rest of his life. He did not speak another word in public for 40 years. His wife, actress Valerie Hobson (The Rocking Horse Winner (1949), Contraband (1940)), stuck with him.

Folks: that's how you show contrition. Contrast with the modern "I take full responsibility" -- and nothing happens.