302 – Notes on a Scandal

About two-thirds of the way through Notes on a Scandal, one of the characters appears to go completely berserk with no provocation at all. Just so nice one minute and then BAM! completely loony the next. At first I thought this was a strange lapse on the part of Patrick Marber, the screenwriter; why have someone go around the bend without giving some sort of cause?

But then in the final third of the movie, it all falls into place. And when one does learn what the impetus is behind the seemingly unwarrented outburst, the logical plot points do align, and all is more or less aright with the world. And the way that the apparently loose strand was tied up (although not too neatly) quickly restored my faith in the film.

The stentorial Dame Judi Dench plays Barbara Covett, a self-described battle-axe of a teacher at a London high school, who befriends the school’s new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a willowy tree branch of a woman who appears to be much more style than substance. During an altercation between students, Barbara saves Sheba with some quick thinking and impromptu discipline, and the two become fast friends. Both teachers are outsiders among their coworkers: Barbara the tough-minded contrarian and Sheba the tall, almost flighty blonde, and soon they’re enjoying lunches together and lunches and drinks after work. You know, good bonding.

Until, of course, Barbara learns that Sheba’s been having an affair with one of her underage students. But rather than turn Sheba in to the school authorities, Barbara instead decides to use the information to her advantage, eliciting a promise from Sheba to call off the affair immediately and return (metaphorically) to the loving arms of her older husband, Richard (Bill Nighy, lately seen with appendages on his face in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie), and her two young children. Barbara’s intentions seem pure – why involve the school and police when the two friends can work it out on their own? After all, that’s what friends are for.

But then Stuff Happens, the insane behavior to which I alluded in my first paragraph. And that causes a sea change in the way the friends view each other. Who is doing the right thing for whom, exactly? Is Barbara betraying Sheba’s confidence? Is Sheba half as bad as we’ve seen her made out to be? And a chain of events is set into motion that destroys people’s lives but falls just short of being a bona fide tragedy, since no one has the good grace to die of shame.

Dench is beyond superb. I’m so used to seeing her in regal, all-knowing roles that it’s refreshing to see her as a more vulnerable – and darker – character, allowing her to really plumb its depths. Barbara, who narrates, can be a cold, scheming bitch with a real axe to grind but also the kindest, empathic woman in the room. Well, for the right people, the kind of people she wants to spend the rest of her life with, perhaps. And Blanchett has never looked better, lighting up the screen with her bewitching, haunting eyes; it’s easy to see why her students think Sheba’s so wonderful. Heck, even the male teachers want to knock boots with Mrs. Hart.

As the movie races to its denouement, one’s never sure for whom one should be rooting, which to my mind is a hallmark of well-made thrillers. There aren’t really any winners in this one, just shattered dreams and lost opportunities. Huge kudos to the pitch-perfect cast and the artful direction of Richard Eyre, who directed Dench in Iris (2000).

***1/2
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One Response to “302 – Notes on a Scandal”

  1. Frothy Ruminations » Blog Archive » Oscars 2007 Says:

    […] Cruz, Volver Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal Helen Mirren, The Queen Meryl Streep, The Devil wears Prada Kate Winslet, Little […]

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