Notes on a Scandal

Giles Keyte/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Richard Eyre/United Kingdom 2006

Notes on a Scandal is melodrama at its best – a nasty, wickedly good, over-the-top story with school teachers standing in where vampires usually prowl. Using a “ripped from the headlines” template, the film is a wide-eyed and delicious examination of obsession and self-delusion.

Like the best allegories of the Middle Ages, the characters’ extra-Biblical names reveal almost as much as their personifications – one is the namesake of an objectified beauty that a king will lie, cheat and murder to possess, and the other is one of the original seven deadly sins.

Bathsheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is the new art teacher at an urban London school where teaching has been traded for crowd control. Wealthy and with a “bourgeois bohemian” sense of status, this beautiful, happily married mother of two quickly finds herself unable to stay above the choppy working-class waters. Thankfully, she is befriended by a most unlikely ally in Barbara Covett (Judi Dench). Barbara is the sort of unyielding battle-axe who was there from the beginning, a cold and disillusioned woman who is disliked by her students and shunned even by her peers. Loneliness has turned her bitter and resentful. It is no surprise that she finds the new girl attractive.

For her part, Sheba is grateful for the advice and the friendship, though theirs is an unlikely alliance. But Sheba is naive and guileless. She never suspects that Barbara has designs on her that go far beyond friendship.

One night, when Barbara happens upon her new friend and a student engaging in the sort of activity Bill Clinton famously denied is actually sex, she senses a golden and perverted opportunity. Confronting Sheba, Barbara claims she will keep silent about the affair provided it ends immediately. This has exactly the intended affect on the distraught and guilt-ridden Sheba. Thinking she has found a most incredible and understanding friend, Sheba has no idea that Barbara wants her entirely, wants to consume her, to possess her mind and body completely. Deluding herself into imagining that Sheba is her lover, Barbara grows livid when Sheba spends any time apart from her. When Sheba decides to attend her son’s play instead of help Barbara grieve the loss of her pet, hell hath no fury as Barbara scorned.

In the end, the truth will come out as it must in films like this. Lives will be destroyed. Careers will be ruined. A confrontation will take place the likes of which Shakespeare would envy.

Notes on a Scandal is based on a highly-praised book by Zoe Heller. Adapted by Closer scribe Patrick Marber, Scandal, like the earlier Little Children, is as close as a movie can get to literature. The film is propelled by Barbara’s malevolent voiceovers, which, for all their venom and disdain, are the stuff of masterful writing – words dripping with the honey of a shimmering pen. This screenplay was born to win an Oscar. Coupled with the superb writing is Phillip Glass’ breathtaking, gothic score. Suffused with his iconic minimalism, this soundtrack is edged with a darker, more brooding soot than we’ve often heard. Oscar nomination number two.

The performances are towering. Dench is something sinister, lurching in and out of the shadows like a magnificent beast we stand in awe of at our own peril. Blanchett is luminous, waif-like one moment, and the next, far more aware of her true lack of innocence than she leads anyone – including herself – to believe. When Sheba discovers the truth of Barbara’s intentions she becomes possessed of a titanic fury, a mythical rage that will cyclone through whatever gets in its way. Oscar noms three and four. And we can’t forget Bill Nighy. It seems the mercifully rediscovered actor has not taken a break since bursting onto the scenes several years ago, and his roles just keep getting richer and deeper. Proving he can play drama and comedy, independent and blockbuster, Nighy here adds tremendous gravity to Sheba’s adoring cuckolded husband.

A sort of Fatal Attraction meets Masterpiece Theatre, Notes on a Scandal is a glimpse into the mouth of madness borne on the wind of loneliness and rejection. It is an admission that the illicit greener grass most often comes with tragic dues, and an observation that fantasies that substitute for reality can often overtake our lives until our personalities are forever subsumed.

A frenzy of rage and desperation, Notes on a Scandal is a compelling and disturbing psychological drama and one of the best films of the year.

© 2007 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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