Monday, January 22, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

by Jackrabbit Slim

Notes on a Scandal is based on a novel called What Was She Thinking, by Zoe Heller, and that certainly is the question you will ask during much of this film, which is crisply directed by Richard Eyre and masterfully spun by screenwriter Patrick Marber, but ultimately crumbles, like an expertly made sand castle. At the heart of this story is a conflict which tends to sag with the weight of melodrama, without being important enough to sit up and take notice.

The story concerns two women, teachers at a school in London. The elder, and narrator of our story, is played by Judi Dench. She is a bitter, lonely old woman, who jots down in her diary how superior she is to everyone. Like Richard III, she tells us about the treachery she's about to commit. The other woman is played by Cate Blanchett as a novice art teacher who seems to be constantly at odds with the world around her. She is unsure of herself in the classroom, and quickly bonds with Dench as one might to a mentor. She is completely unaware of the insidious manner Dench has about forming a friendship.

Soon enough it is clear that Dench is actually a frustrated lesbian, but unwilling to accept her inclinations, instead longing to have a friendship with Blanchett. However Blanchett seems happily married to an older man, Bill Nighy, and is the mother to two children, including a boy with Downs Syndrome. It is only when Dench discovers that Blanchett is having an affair with a 15-year-old student does she realize she has the upper hand.

This affair is the "Scandal" in question, and I'm never completely convinced why Blanchett undertakes it. Yes, her character is a bit of flibberty-gibbet, or perhaps simply someone with an "artistic" temperament, but there just isn't enough there to explain why she carries it out. Nothing on screen about her relationship with Nighy suggests a reason for it, nor is the boy, played by Andrew Simpson, a freckle-faced lad with a Scottish burr, so incredibly charismatic that he is irresistible.

The titillation of such an affair is fueled by the many instances of it in the news. A similar relationship between an older man and a teenage girl is rightly seen as nothing but creepy and reprehensible, but when the genders are reversed, though the law deals with it just as severely, public opinion seems to judge it differently, with a wink and a nod. This film does the same.

The performances are excellent. Dench sinks her teeth into this role like a lioness into an antelope. She puts a lie to the claim that there are no roles for women of a certain age. If she is Oscar-nominated for this role, as I expect her to be, it will be her sixth, all past the age of sixty, astonishingly unprecedented. Blanchett, also one of the finest actresses in film, is good, but again she has less to work with. We hear Dench's every thought in the frequent voice-over narration of her diary entries, and we see Blanchett through her eyes. As for Bill Nighy, he's fast becoming one of my favorite character actors. If he is in a film, his part is sure to be interesting.

Also worth mentioning is the gripping music score, by Philip Glass.

2 Comments:

Blogger Brian said...

I was OK with it. Can't claim to have loved it but can't really knock it too much, either.

I was relieved when the movie didn't quite overreach the way the trailer did. Not that the movie wasn't acted and directed at a fever pitch, but it was nowhere near as campy as the trailer made it out to be.

Agreed on Dench and Nighy.

Had an easier time with Blanchett's decisions than you did, although I think it's a tough thing to gauge because the story is keyed to Dench's point of view. We just don't know enough about Blanchett to understand what her family life is actually like.

Liked Glass's score as music on its own terms, but thought it a bit intrusive at times in the film.

1/22/2007 11:14:00 AM  
Blogger LesterG said...

Decent. The first 30-45 minutes fire on all cylinders. But once the main plot kicked in, I felt it jumped off-track.

The film works best when it's a dark comedy. Dench's voiceover appraisals of her co-workers/Cate’s life and family (along with her obsessive over-analysis of every mundane event as it relates to furthering their relationship) are laugh out-loud hilarious. If they could have somehow kept the film’s wit intact while the teacher/student sex plot unraveled, this could have been a classic dark comedy.

I'm not sure if anyone is familiar with it (it's only recently come back in-print) but the Michael Caine film "A Shock to the System" would have been a good blueprint for the tone.

In terms of the score: I liked enough to purchase it, but it's intrusive as hell at times (particularly during Blanchett's first confession to Dench). It works much better on its own terms.

Bill Nighy is God.

1/23/2007 08:09:00 PM  

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