John Hurt did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Stephen Ward in Scandal.
This actually is just a bit of atypical role for John Hurt whose face scraggly face often gets him cast as a more retiring sort of man. Well Hurt's certainly great in those roles though this offers just even more of a glimpse into the man's considerable talent as an actor. Hurt plays Stephen Ward an osteopath by profession, but what he clearly really lives for is the night life. Stephen acts as basically the man who organizes all the sexual parties and liaisons for the upper crusts in the British conservative government in power at the time. We first are introduced to Stephen when he finds a new woman to be part of his scene. That being a showgirl Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley). Hurt is quite brilliant in his creation of the style of Stephen Ward. The fact that he's a bit of skeevy old man is just part of it. Hurt does not hide this in his performance, but instead very effectively embraces it as he always depicts Ward taking probably far too much pleasure some of the most questionable aspects of his hidden little world.
What's great though is Hurt does not make Ward as off putting as he could have easily been, even though he keeps the character's nature quite prevalent at all times. Hurt manages something special in that he does make Ward above else quite a character. There is a charm of sort he brings in Ward's personal style as Hurt always plays him in the early scenes as a man kinda overjoyed with just the idea of living his life the way he wants. There's nothing sinister in the way Hurt portrays this there's in fact an abundance of warmth about him. Hurt makes it absolutely convincing that Ward could get the young ladies to be his agents of sorts because he creates this powerful personality simply through just how easy going Ward is towards things. It never seems like a big deal for the women to do what he suggests because Hurt realizes the way Ward has a way with the women. When he suggests that they spend to time with one of the powerful men he knows, Hurt brings such a considerable elegance to Stephen basically telling them that they should have sex with them.
Of course Ward is not just in on it simply to be in on the life, although that's probably should be his only reason. He also develops his own ideas of the sort of power that he has gained from his somewhat dubious position as the man who finds women for powerful men. He also takes some tasks from MI5 to try to derive information through these liaisons. Hurt is great in the scenes where Stephen discusses this with Christine because well he does not exactly show Stephen taking this in the right way. Hurt portrays Stephen in these scenes as being almost a little boy who's getting in on the spy game, and gets to play James Bond for his very own. The sort of excitement Hurt exudes as Stephen asks for the information so well realizes the sort of silly man that Ward is. His life is just a party and the spy work just becomes yet another part of that party. He never gets anything useful out of this anyways but Hurt's so good at showing how much joy Stephen gets out of this little world he thinks he has ownership of, and ownership he will not want in the near future.
I do think one of the flaws of the film though is Hurt is a tad underused since the film takes the approach of basically hitting each beat of the scandal's timeline. This makes it so Ward's only appearances are needed to hit these points, and it would not have hurt the film to have given just some more scenes throughout. This unfortunately requires more from Hurt than it should in the last act when Ward is put on trial basically as a scapegoat for the government. This feels a bit rushed for two reasons mainly. The first being the film wants us to have more out of Ward's relationship with Christine than the film managed to provide. I mean we definitely got something thanks to Hurt, but I think the film expects a little too much from just the few scenes they had together. The second being this rushes Hurt to portray Ward fall into despair due to the betrayal of everyone around. It's is understandable, but even as a rushed fall into despair it still feels a bit rushed. Hurt to his credit though does not falter and does manage to be fairly moving by removing the life from such a lively fellow. He's especially good in one scene where he has to describe one of his parties and slowly loses his cheekiness as it becomes clear not everyone thinks the way he does. I really just think there should have been more of it, since really you can never have too much John Hurt. Even when the film falters a bit John Hurt does not. He's engaging every second he's on screen, creating quite the compelling depiction of Stephen Ward, and when the worst part of a performance is there's not enough of it, that's a very good performance.