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Film: Notes on a Scandal

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Zoë Heller, What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal

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Philip Glass, Soundtrack to Notes on a Scandal
Richard Eyre's new movie, Notes on a Scandal, uses a screenplay by Patrick Marber, adapted from the novel by Zoë Heller. Its narrator, an obsessive, bitter old history teacher named Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is one of the more fascinating voices captured on film this year. In her actual life, Barbara is hardly worth our trouble, a self-described "battle axe" who keeps her students in line with nothing more than a sharp tone and a withering glance. The screenplay captures Heller's heroine's inner life by having Dench narrate the story in voice-over, words drawn from Barbara's obsessively kept diary -- which we see at one point as a shelf of color-coded, meticulously organized notebooks. In those self-obsessed words, Barbara comes across as a vain, deluded kook, yes, but with a chilly wit.

Eyre's camera (cinematography by Chris Menges) is just as relentless in documenting the embarrassing wrinkles of Barbara's body. Judi Dench's bathtub scene is as frank, fascinating, and yet disturbing as Alice Neel's 1980 self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery. A deeply closeted lesbian, Barbara becomes enamored with the school's new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), although the two are practically complete opposites. Sheba's beauty attracts the attention of everyone else in the school, too. What turns an innocent crush into a dangerous obsession is Barbara's discovery that Sheba has yielded to one of her pursuers, a student named Steven Connolly (newcomer Andrew Simpson, who was not even born when Cate Blanchett and I were graduating from high school). Promising to protect Sheba's secret, Barbara worms her way into her life, through a process that gradually becomes emotional blackmail.

Other Reviews:
Manohla Dargis | Stephen Hunter | David Denby | DCist | Rotten Tomatoes

Philip Glass, composerEyre can draw strong performances from actors, as he did already with Judi Dench in the only other movie of his I have seen, Iris (2001). Not unlike that movie, Notes on a Scandal has many memorable performances that outshine the film as a whole. Cate Blanchett is a luminous presence, someone just too sweet to be a teacher. The portrait of her family life -- an older husband (Bill Nighy), a sullen teenage stepdaughter, a son with Down Syndrome -- convinces the viewer of the answer in Heller's book title. What she was thinking was that she had given so much of herself at such a young age, and sleeping with a student was in some way a chance to regain her youth. The tension and beauty of the movie are considerably enhanced by the striking minimalist score by Philip Glass. Without this music, the film would be diminished emotionally, as the repeating motives of Glass's signature style evoke perfectly Barbara's idée fixe. Mychael Danna's scores for The Ice Storm and many other movies have had a similar effect.

Sadly, Eyre hits a few false notes, which tip the scale of the movie too much in the direction of Fatal Attraction. Particularly bathetic is a series of scenes toward the end of the film when Sheba, betrayed and turned out of her house, stays with Barbara. Of course, she discovers Barbara's diary, after conveniently putting on bright red lipstick and mascara that will make her face into a clownish mask as she goes berserk. After this point, two fine performances became caricatures. Perhaps this is why Notes on Scandal, nominated for three Golden Globe awards, received none. Both actresses were nominated for SAG Awards, too: we will see what the actors think.

1 comment:

Todd said...

Rent 'Stage Beauty' with Crudup and Danes. I was minorly obessesed with it for a time and thought it was over-looked as some sort of 'Shakespeare in Love' knock-off. It is not. If Crudup's performance doesn't make evident how the Academy can ignore great performances in small films, nothing can.