Movie Review: Notes on a Scandal
FILM REVIEW: NOTES ON A SCANDAL
By Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Good, cold fun, "Notes on a Scandal" is worth seeing mainly for the way Judi Dench toys with Cate Blanchett, not unlike a cat playing with a mouse at lunchtime. It's quite a spectacle, and the two performances are lovely. The power dynamic at the center of the story shifts constantly, mouse and cat, cat and mouse. The film itself settles for one level of pulp satisfaction, but Dench and Blanchett transcend it.
Dench plays Barbara Covett, an intimidating schoolteacher whose last defense against burnout is her precious diary. At her overburdened Islington district school, a new art teacher joins the ranks of those educating "the local pubescent proles," as Barbara deems them. She is Sheba Hart (Blanchett), a carelessly sensual creature with "the complexion of a white peach."
The peach is ripe. Barbara, whose dare-I-hope sexual repression is thawed with aching subtlety thanks to Dench, befriends this "new one" and lights a fire within herself. Sheba's life outside the school is revealed to be a full, chaotic tangle of commitments. Her husband (Bill Nighy) turns out to be older than Barbara would've guessed, and her children (one of them a 12-year-old with Down syndrome) require a great deal of love and attention.
It's all rather exotic to Barbara, whose heart is quietly being eaten to bits by her alluring new friend. Then opportunity knocks: Barbara spies Sheba semi-naked in a classroom with a 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson). The older woman's closeted feelings of betrayal give way to a scheme of blackmail.
Based on Zoe Heller's novel, the Patrick Marber screenplay keeps the narrative swift and compact. These roles drip with melodramatic juice, yet Dench in particular realizes the value in keeping the pot on a simmer. She revels in the details of a lonely life made up of guarded glances and buried desire. Then, whammo, she lets all the cannons roar in a Glenn Close instant.
Dench has a willing and able partner in Blanchett, never lovelier. She fully inhabits an intriguing paradox: a free spirit who feels trapped by her choices and trappings in what Barbara calls, sneeringly, the land of "bourgeois bohemia." In lesser hands, "Notes on a Scandal" might seem like well-crafted trash with a psycho-lesbian stalker at its core. In fact it seems a little that way anyway. While you appreciate the zip and dash brought to the potboiling narrative by Marber ("Closer") and director Richard Eyre, "Notes on a Scandal" settles for some obvious "Fatal Attraction" moments. Philip Glass' score is all over the thing, foisting the menace and the threat of violence every second.
All that dread makes it hard for the black humor to emerge through the characters. By design those characters are more pathetique than "Diabolique." Leave it to the first-class actors dining out on those roles to make the cat and the mouse interesting and unpredictable.
"Notes on a Scandal"
Directed by Richard Eyre; screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on Zoe Heller's novel; cinematography by Chris Menges; edited by John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelen; production design by Tim Hatley; music by Philip Glass; produced by Scott Rudin and Robert Fox. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: R (language and some aberrant sexual content).
Barbara Covett - Judi Dench
Sheba Hart - Cate Blanchett
Richard Hart - Bill Nighy
Steven Connolly - Andrew Simpson