‘Scoop’ Review: Gillian Anderson and Billie Piper Go In for the Kill in an Engrossing Look Behind Prince Andrew’s Fall From Grace

It’s no great slight to “Scoop” to say that it’s no more compelling than the real-life news broadcast on which it pivots. It’s also no less compelling than said broadcast, which was, after all, a doozy: the 2019 episode of “BBC Newsnight” in which anchor Emily Maitlis interviewed Prince Andrew about his friendship with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. It was a coup that saw the Duke of York roundly convicted in the court of public opinion, and led to him being stripped of his royal titles. But Philip Martin’s slick, pacy Netflix film isn’t especially interested in the fallout, or indeed in the Prince’s experience at all — instead procedurally tracing the media machinations and negotiations that enabled the interview in the first place, and pointedly centering the newswomen, on screen and off, who made it all happen.

Underlining the enduring impact of the story, “Scoop” is the first of two projects this year inspired by the interview. The second, the Amazon miniseries “A Very Royal Scandal,” starring Ruth Wilson and Michael Sheen, will boast Maitlis’ own blessing as an executive producer. Martin’s film is differently authorized, handing the same credit to the less celebrated party whom it takes as its effective protagonist: Sam McAlister, the former “Newsnight” booker who doggedly secured the Prince’s participation in the interview, and from whose memoir Peter Moffat and Geoff Bussetil’s script has been drawn. It’s an instructive shift in perspective, making “Scoop” the story of a scrappy underdog fighting two mighty British institutions — not just the House of Windsor, in all its impenetrably protected prestige, but the BBC itself, initially presented here as a staid, even classist organization, hostile to intrepid outsiders.

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In a canny stroke of casting, McAlister is played by Billie Piper, the former teen pop star who overturned a lightweight public image to become a heavily laureled actor of stage and screen. All bottle-blonde curls and unsubtly flaunted designer labels, she enters the film with brash something-to-prove energy, striding into the BBC headquarters to the strains of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” — which just so happens to be her ringtone too.

A single mother with proudly working-class roots, McAlister is briskly good at her job, netting A-list talent galore for “Newsnight,” but her liberal colleagues chafe against what they perceive as her tabloid approach to news journalism — with the well-spoken, conscientious Maitlis (Gillian Anderson, in a performance of witty mimicry, but human resolve too) embodying old-school BBC values. (That Maitlis remains the only “Newsnight” presenter to have attended a state school goes unmentioned here: “Scoop” can flatten certain details in pursuit of a larger point.)

“Why don’t they see me as one of them?” McAlister sighs to her mother, while simultaneously berating her BBC cohorts for their principled snobbery, vocally wishing they had “half the instincts and a quarter of the contacts of the average tabloid paparazzo.” Specifically, she’s thinking of New York-based shutterbug Jae Donnelly (Connor Swindells), who’s been monitoring Epstein for years — and whose gotcha 2010 snapping of Prince Andrew in conversation with the disgraced financier is tensely portrayed in the film’s pre-credit prologue.

Nine years later, the men’s high-powered friendship is hardly news, but McAlister senses another shoe about to drop, courting the Prince’s private secretary Amanda Thirsk (Keeley Hawes) for interview access. Thirsk plays coy, while “Newsnight” producer Esmé Wren (Romola Garai) isn’t sure they have a story. When Epstein is arrested for sex trafficking, both women take McAlister a lot more seriously.

If Piper gives “Scoop’s” first half a doughty, forceful heroine, it’s merely the fault of McAlister’s job description that her grip on the narrative loosens once the interview is fixed, and the emphasis shifts to the more public showdown between Maitlis and the Prince. Played with just the right temperature of dry, dour aggression by Rufus Sewell — his knife-like features convincingly blunted by prosthetics — he’s as foggy and evasive as Maitlis is precisely focused, but just snappish enough to bring some dramatic fizz and friction to an encounter we’ve already seen play out.

Martin and editor Kristina Hetherington cleverly tease out the ultimate dynamic of the broadcast, at one point cross-cutting between their respective rehearsals of questions and answers, before the film succumbs to the simpler pleasures of pop-cultural reenactment: There’s a tingle of camp to Anderson and Sewell’s faithful readings of exchanges that have already been endlessly memed, from the memorably banal “Pizza Express in Woking” alibi to the ludicrous no-sweat defense.

At this point, “Scoop” can offer no surprises to any viewers who were remotely acquainted with news media five years ago, though the simultaneous absurdity and horror of the interview — leaving its royal subject at once defeated and recalcitrant — startles us once more. Condensing the aftermath into a few short scenes and title cards, plus a montage of aghast social media reactions, the script finds a sense of victory in Andrew’s subsequent royal demotion, cheering the integrity and influence of the national broadcaster in holding power to account. (It’s a light irony that this celebration comes bound in a Netflix production.)

Amid the uplift, McAlister’s concerns of class discrimination within the BBC’s ranks are briefly set to one side — yet the takeaway here is that the Royal Family’s untouchable elite status endures, with the Prince at once disciplined and protected by his own, yet to face criminal charges. The frustration of “Scoop” is also its point: It vividly conjures the adrenaline and awe of one hour of dynamite television, but can bring us no closer to complete truth, or complete justice.

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