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At the Movies: ‘Scandal’

April 27, 1989 GMT

Undated (AP) _ In 1959, a rakish young osteopath named Stephen Ward met a lucious teen- ager named Christine Keeler as she pranced half naked in a London nightclub. The union between this sexual Svengali and overripe party-girl eventually toppled the British Conservative Party in what headlines around the world screamed as the Profumo Affair.

Michael Caton-Jones’ ″Scandal″ tries to recreate those muddied times for the British in a sex-laden but leaden film that’s held together only by John Hurt’s strong performance as Stephen Ward.

The story unravels in the electric, carefree early 1960s, a time of Carnaby Street, psychedelia and easy sex - a time like any other time when boys will be boys and girls will be girls. But don’t get caught. The movie teases with scenes of naked women and lusting men, but becomes so tangled in esoteric British characters that one needs a dance card to keep up.

A popular playboy, Ward is regarded as something of a procurer for his wealthy and titled friends. In Christine, he sees a wild but promising colt who with the proper training could be turned into a lady of grace and sophistication.

He introduces her to his pals - Lord Astor, Peter Rachman - who quickly help keep her in style. She soon attracts the attention of a Soviet naval attache, Eugene Ivanov. Ward, who thrives on gossip and scandal, is delighted. He’s convinced Ivanov is a spy, and sets about to relate all of Christine’s conversations and details of assignations to British Intelligence.

At the same time, she’s also taken up with Cabinet Minister John Profumo (Ian McKellen), the secretary of war. He gives her gifts and sends her affectionate notes. Their affair was brief, lasting only a few months.

A year later, Christine angers a drug-dealing former lover who arrives with a gun at the Wimpole Mews apartment she shares with Ward and her friend, Mandy Rice-Davies (Bridget Fonda), another party girl. He shoots at the door, the police are summoned and the first headlines appear.

Ward, a professional social-climber, turns his back on her, and a hurt Christine sits over tea with a Fleet Street reporter to talk about her disloyal friend. But she rambles on about other matters, and certain celebrated names tumble from her lips. She’s paid for her story, which the tabloid cutely titles, ″The Model, the Minister and the Russian Spy.″

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A police investigation is launched, and Ward becomes the scapegoat. He’s arrested and put on trial for living off the earnings of prostitutes - Keeler and Rice-Davies. Profumo resigns; Ivanov returns to the Soviet Union. Before the trial concludes, Ward commits suicide. A jury still finds him guilty.

As Christine, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer seems too wise, too worldly, too experienced. Still, she manages to captivate with a peculiar sort of vulnerability. Fonda is wonderfully coquettish in a mod, Mary Quant way, and McKellen is subdued but believable as the proper cabinet minister smitten by a sexy young thing.

Hurt moves from callous, amoral and fun-loving to introspective, hurt and bitter. He is an actor who can sustain a mood with only one note.

″Scandal″ is really the story of Stephen Ward rather than Christine Keeler or the downfall of Profumo’s Conservative Party. It also is the story of a good-old boy system that casts its fallen members to the dogs. Ultimately, the Profumo scandal itself is far less interesting than Ward, who remains an enigma.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

X - No one under 17 admitted. Some states may have higher age restrictions.