Monday, December 25, 2006

Notes on a Scandal - Movie Review

Notes on a Scandal 2006

If we ever needed a vivid example of the power of great acting and crisp direction to overcome a tired scenario, this is it. “Notes on a Scandal” breaks absolutely no new ground cinematically. It is squarely and quite tritely in the category of revenge thriller made infamous by such films as “Fatal Attraction” and “Single White Female”. The setup is blindingly simple. One character develops a rather unhealthy attraction for another character thereby bringing down the both of them.

The reason that his film is showing up on Best of the Year lists, and frequently mentioned alongside the fabled name of Oscar is the casting of Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett as the two leads. In brief, their performances are not only two of the best of the year; they are two of the best performances given by these extremely talented actresses.

Dame Judi Dench is already the proud possessor of an Oscar for her two seconds of screen time in “Shakespeare in Love” (obviously making up for her loss the previous year for her fantastic interpretation of Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown”, but we digress.), and a further three nominations for “Chocolat”, “Iris” and last year’s “Mrs. Henderson Presents”. All three of her Best Actress nominations were richly deserved. Her two Supporting noms and win in that category, not so much. But here, as the time ravaged history teacher who harbors dark dreams and darker fantasies, she is simply extraordinary. (It would seem that Dame Judi should work with director Richard Eyre more often, after their success with “Iris”. The tip is free, Dame Judi, take it or leave it.)

Stripped of any semblance of attractiveness, and yes, even though she is no supermodel, the Dame can pull it together enough to pass for a handsome woman of un certain age – case in point, her turn as “M” in the delightful “Casino Royale”. As Barbara Covett, Judi Dench banishes all personal vanity to lump across the screen in no makeup, a horrific greasefest of a hairstyle and clothing better suited for a prison matron than a famed actress. Her Barbara is a lonely spinster who diligently details her thoughts of superiority, bitterness, regret and fantastical yearnings into her daily journal.

As a history teacher to a rapidly declining civilization that cares more for reality shows and handheld electronics, she looks upon her young charges with utter contempt and her peers with a reserved mask of politeness that barely disguises her disgust. Into her life saunters one Sheba Hart, the new Art teacher that seems to represent everything Barbara loathes and envies.

Sheba is of course portrayed by the absurdly talented Cate Blanchett who is three for three this year in wonderful performances following her supporting turn in “Babel” and her graceful lead in “The Good German”. Her Sheba Hart attracts the attention of Barbara from their first meeting. A natural beauty, sporting a bohemian carriage who glides through the hallways at school with a natural charm and sex appeal that clearly Barbara never possessed.

Watching these two fine actresses weave their way through the not so subtle maze of a storyline is one of the great pleasures of the year. Dame Judi has rarely been cast as an out-and-out villain, and she is too fine an actress to choose such a cartoon like character without finding an infinite variety of methods to flesh out this vile woman into a fully rounded human being. While we certainly cannot condone Barbara’s actions, we understand completely her own rationale and twisted logic.

Our beloved Cate Blanchett is saddled with the more difficult role to eschew. Her Sheba is a woman out to undermine her own happiness. Married to a man several years her senior, she is the mother of two children who has opted to return to the workforce in order to satisfy her yearnings. For what, she isn’t exactly clear. Until her dreamy gaze falls upon a strikingly attractive and legally unapproachable young man in one of her classes by the name of Steven Connolly.

Before you can whisper Mrs. Robinson, she is blowing the bloke and reveling in her forbidden sin. Unfortunately for the both of them, they have been found out by Barbara. Before you can scream “Psychotic-Closeted-Lesbian!”, Barbara has manipulated Sheba into a parasitic relationship wherein Babs promises to keep mum to demonstrate her undying devotion to her new best friend.

Where the plot takes us next is not too difficult to figure out. For despite her best intentions and seemingly heartfelt promises to Barbara, Sheba just can’t seem to keep her grubby hands off the little piece of ass teenager! (Slut.) Okay, we could hardly blame her, for Andrew Simpson is one cute little puppy as Steven Connolly! Ahem. We mean, he is one fine young actor . . . oh hell, he’s dreamy and perfectly cast in that regard. It remains to be seen if he is a fine actor, but his screen presence is undeniable.

And here we must thank director Richard Eyre for his smart choices. When Sheba explains all the ins and outs, NOT THOSE, you perverts – rather when she attempts to explain to Barbara how exactly the affair began we are treated to a very smartly edited montage that while not exonerating Sheba’s choices, makes us understand her reasoning. In order for us to care about the drama, Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber understand that the lead characters need not be angels, but they must be human beings. Now, if only director Eyre had thought twice about the music! For unfortunately, he has selected minimalist maestro Philip Glass to dribble away another of his endlessly droning and hair raising scores – which reminds us of the old joke:

“Knock, knock.”
“Who is it?”
“Knock, knock.”
“Who is it?”
“Knock, knock.”
. . .
“Philip Glass.”

We suppose Richard figured that the theatricality of the genre needed an equally dramatic score, but he would be wrong. Thankfully, Glass’ own particular brand of elevator music does not outshine the sterling performances by Dench and Blanchett.

The only other actor in the piece who manages to crane his neck in between the electrically charged divas is Bill Nighy, that naughty scene stealer from the drippy “Love Actually” a few years back. Here as Cate’s husband and the cuckold in question, he provided a lovely counterpoint to the lead ladies. We were a bit taken aback by the grandly theatrical confrontation scene that occurs once he finds out the truth about his wife’s extracurricular activities, but that seemed to be a fair choice given the nature of the scandal. His reactions are genuinely “operatic” as described by the eavesdropping Barbara, but forgivable in the context of his otherwise fine work.

Still, once you have seen this well helmed and brilliantly acted thriller, you will hardly be able to remember anything other than Dame Judi and the future Dame Cate! Their emotional thrust and parry, the way they manage to play every nuance and reach every note so perfectly more than compensates for any less than perfect choices – we’re still looking at you, Philip Glass. So, run don’t walk to the nearest cinema and take a gander at “Notes on a Scandal”. You’ll be glad we sent you. Bless you all!

(Endnote: Do yourselves an even bigger favor, and run out of the theatre prior to the bizarrely amateurish coda at the end of the movie. It is a horrid misstep from the otherwise reliable Richard Eyre. We get it, Dick. This wasn’t her first time. But you made that perfectly clear in the context of the movie, why treat us like imbeciles? Okay, okay. We’re harping. Go see it, already! They are fabulous, and deserving of their surefire Oscar nominations! Go! Before we stalk you.)

Directed by Richard Eyre
Screenplay by Patrick Marber
Based on the novel “What Was She Thinking?” by Zoe Heller

Judi Dench as Barbara Covett
Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart
Andrew Simpson as Steven Connolly
Bill Nighy as Richard Hart
Juno Temple as Polly Hart
Max Lewis as Ben Hart

Cinematography by Chris Menges
Film Editing by John Bloom
Costume Design by Tim Hatley
Production Design by Tim Hatley
Art Direction by Grant Armstrong & Mark Raggett
Original Music by Philip Glass



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