The Theory of Chaos

Monday, January 08, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Notes on a Scandal

Full review behind the jump

Notes on a Scandal

: Richard Eyre
: screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on the novel What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
: Robert Fox, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Scott Rudin
: Dame Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Juno Temple, Max Lewis

I have never met anyone quite like Barbara Covett, and yet I feel like I know her to her bones, and she terrifies me. It is because Covett is being played by Dame Judi Dench, who creates Barbara right down to those plodding shoes, who knows how to show us with the curl of a finger just how strong her desperation is wrenching at her, and with the smallest movement of her eyeballs when her private mania, her (let’s use the word) covetousness, is inflamed.

Notes on a Scandal
is at its heart a triumphant trick of perspective, a story that gains a lurid squirminess because we are experiencing it through Barbara’s eyes. It would be enough if that were a pretext for giving a central role to Dench, a wily master thespian accustomed to having to make the most of tiny morsels of screen time – her Academy Award-winning performance in Shakespeare in Love lasts all of eight minutes. But it also cannily exploits the ways in which Barbara both is, and isn’t, responsible for the misery in the life of Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett). The truth is Sheba’s bringing loads of it down on herself – it’s that she does it in the vicinity of Barbara, though, and that we get to watch Barbara insinuate herself into it, that propels this story to its most twisted depths.

And Dench finds an equal in both talent and range in Blanchett, a young actress who could live comfortably off her grace and porcelain features but continues to seek the most challenging variety of projects and filmmakers she can find. She has played Queen Elizabeth (as did Dench in the same year, coincidentally), the immortal elf Galadriel in
The Lord of the Rings, Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, and next year is playing Bob Dylan. Yes, that Bob Dylan. Here she creates a portrait of a woman drowning in her domesticity, who follows one self-destructive impulse with another and is desperately unable to understand why. Barbara might have some insight, if only her observations weren’t so clearly colored by desires she won’t put words to.

But she has plenty of words for everything else in the earnest little journals she keeps. Screenwriter Patrick Marber, whose adaptation of his stage play Closer didn’t do quite enough in the translation to bridge the gap between the two art forms, here is untethered from theatrical convention, and free to give Barbara dialogue of the most acid concision.

She’s a battle-scarred teacher at the British equivalent to a high school – she survives the animal behavior of her students by understanding their latent willingness to defer to imperious authority, no matter how insubstantial. If they knew the nattering, petty judgments she scribbled in her journal, knew how helpless it makes her when her cat is unhealthy, she might be torn limb from limb.

Sheba is the newest faculty member – here to teach art and quite unsure about the real grind of teaching as compared with those magic fantasies of Touching One Special Student. Her family life is conducted rather the same way – we never doubt she adores her much older husband (Bill Nighy), her adolescent daughter (Juno Temple) with her adolescent tumults, or her Down’s Syndrome-afflicted son (Max Lewis), and yet we can tell she does not draw strength from their daily struggle in this world, but that instead it chips away at her.

And when her One Special Student, a rakish hormone bundle named Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), does appear, something inside that might be either selfishness, vanity, or plain incompatibility with happiness spurs her to a life-altering mistake.

Barbara finds out about this mistake – Barbara who has lately fixated on Sheba, and who puts little gold stars in her journal whenever they spend time together. Sheba’s transgression will lead to many more “Gold Star Days”.

I don’t know if it’s depraved shock or wicked delight you will feel as Barbara’s hold over Sheba inevitably tightens. Composer Phillip Glass crafts a throbbing curtain of a score out of the most simple musical elements; it serves to hypnotize us, shake us loose from any safe moral ground and allow Dench’s galvanic performance to vicariously fasten us to her sick private thrills.

Director Richard Eyre, a British stage and television veteran who also worked with Dench in the well-acted but somewhat weightless Iris, knows well enough when he’s in a situation where the elements are working and he should interfere as little as possible. His direction of what is largely a marvelous two-woman show is excellently invisible, always thriving on the tension of anything being possible next, and trusting his players. In what could have been a role of phoned-in anguish, Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Shaun of the Dead, The Girl in the Café) carries on a dynamite streak of work, playing an intelligent man who really believes he’s built and maintained his own paradise between the map points of bohemianism and domesticity. The fervency of love he shows for his life only amplifies the shock and heartbreak ahead.

If I have one quibble with Notes on a Scandal, it’s in the moment where Marber breaks the compact with his own characters. In most of the film they pirouette around their flawed wants with fevered wit – I applaud how articulately they can avoid the truth. And yet at a key moment he grants one character, one spectacularly unlikely to have such insight, to speak the dull and obvious truth of a situation. It’s a stunning fumble, but thankfully it is not long before we are back into our delicious game of spider and fly. And it’s not that we’re rooting for the spider, but it sure gets more interesting the closer fly gets to her web, isn’t it?


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