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6 reviews, 22 user ratings

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Notes on a Scandal
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by Jay Seaver

"Wallowing with a sophisticated veneer."
4 stars

At least in her work that has shown up in America in recent years, Dame Judi Dench has mostly managed to avoid the "poisonous, meddlesome spinster" roles. This kind of surprises me, since they're generally small but memorable parts, the sort of thing where she excels. She's also the right age and has the right voice for them. Maybe she feels it would be too easy.

Notes on a Scandal gives her the chance to play that sort of role as a lead, and she dives into it with relish. Her Barbara Covett describes herself honestly as a battle-axe, a high-school history teacher long past feeling any sentiment about her noble profession ("teaching is crowd control") and looking down at her colleagues and students with contempt. The irony is that in many ways, Barbara has never matured beyond the level of her students. Her diary entries are used as narration and a direct look into her mind, and Dench gives them the breathless voice of a teenager. Sure, that voice can become angry, bitter, and cynical at a moment's notice, but when she's first becoming friendly with Cate Blanchett's Sheba, there's a near-innocence to her obsession. It doesn't make Barbara any less monstrous; if anything, it marks her as even more maladjusted. Dench keeps us from finding Barbara crazy; indeed, she's frighteningly sane.

The movie relates how this bitter woman becomes infatuated with the new art teacher at he school, and while she's at first content to be friends with (and, perhaps, a mentor to) the young and beautiful Sheba Hart (Blanchett), her admiration is shaken when she sees Sheba making love to fifteen-year-old student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). At first she's appalled, but she quickly sees opportunity: Apply this knowledge properly, and Barbara can get much closer to Sheba - perhaps even pry her away from her husband Richard (Bill Nighy) and their children.

While the names in the cast might suggest an introspective, thoughtful movie, it is at heart a melodrama, and while it always manages to pull back just before going over the top, it's never far from that point. Sometimes director Richard Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber (working from a novel by Zoe Heller) seem well aware of this, as when Sheba realizes that Steven has been feeding her a line of bull in order to seduce her. Most of the time the irony is absent, played up by Philip Glass's loud score and the plaintive yelling that makes up most of the last act - does it does it get less subtle than Sheba's daughter yelling "your boyfriend is younger than mine!"? No, not really.

The cast is good enough to make the turgid material work. Dench milks her character for every bit of snide condescension she's worth, using a sharp tongue and a disinterest in what others think to hide the fact that she's not quite so clever as she thinks she is from herself. Blanchett probablly has the more difficult role, because when you get right down to it, Sheba really isn't that bright, and it's up to Blanchett to convince us that despite all the foolish, self-destructive things this woman does, she is not simply reaping what she sows. The character's mother has a line that it's lucky for Sheba that she's pretty, because she doesn't have much substance; what Blanchett does is to both show us the truth to the words, show us how a lifetime of hearing them has hurt her, and suggest that the everyday things she does - looking after her children (one of whom has Down's Syndrome), trying to reach her students, generally being good to those around her - have more value than those who disdain them give them credit for.

The smaller roles are well-filled, too: Bill Nighy is always a pleasure to watch, even in a movie like this where he is frankly reduced to going from the laughing father to the angry cuckold. Andrew Simpson is suitably cocky as the male version of the nightmare teen character: Steven's clearly never a victim, but it's never much of a stretch to see why Sheba would confuse him for one. The other teachers at the school give their roles just enough to imply that there's more to them than the derision Barbara dishes out, but not so much more that her mean comments aren't initially good for a laugh.

The story is fairly tight; the second-half revelations of Barbara's past come out in such a way as to build her character without twisting it for shock value. There's a feeling of time passing, which is something that this kind of film often has trouble with: A chapter break in a book lets us feel time jump forward, but a film can have difficulty breaking the feeling of real time. Eyre also does a good job cutting between Barbara and Sheba, keeping us from losing sight of where either one is in their lives.

"Notes on a Scandal" is kind of trashy, but it's well-constructed trash. It's too bad more movies with their minds in the gutter aren't this good.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15304&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/24/07 18:41:56
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User Comments

5/21/11 brian How anyone could give less than five stars is beyond me. Impeccable. 5 stars
3/25/09 mariah really good movie, everyone should read the book. its awesome 4 stars
1/09/09 Anonymous. they shouldn't have changed the ending, the book's ending was more appropriate. :/ 4 stars
12/05/08 Shaun Wallner Great Film! 4 stars
7/26/08 christina one of my favorite movies...cate blanchett and judi dench were amazing 5 stars
10/24/07 Ivana Mann The best performances in a film in at least a decade.Must see! 5 stars
7/02/07 William Goss Dench, Blanchett, Nighy all stellar enough to make compelling a flimsy melodrama. 4 stars
4/21/07 Dark Enchantress it was good, very interesting and unpredictable 5 stars
4/20/07 action movie fan lolita in reverse-fairly interesting but mosty dull 2 stars
4/06/07 Anthony a fantastic tour de force of acting 5 stars
3/16/07 Louise Gripped me from start to finish! Powerful! 5 stars
2/23/07 Ole Man Bourbon Good acting but pretty silly movie. Falls apart about halfway through. 3 stars
2/20/07 jeanne Barbara's NOT a lesbian; she's a parasitic sociopath. Judi rocks the house! 5 stars
2/17/07 jcjs i trust lesbians don't take this personal..acting actiing actiing wonderful, wow delcious.. 5 stars
2/05/07 lizzie k Totally gripping had me enthalled throughout!! must see again soon 5 stars
2/03/07 Jonathan A cold, sad film that leaves you with the 'feel bad' factor 3 stars
2/03/07 Jen Excellent film! 5 stars
2/02/07 Sandy Ralston GREAT!! Fantastic acting and very good storyline 5 stars
1/09/07 Nik Kelly Erik Childress: U reference Seinfeld and Paris Hilton in your review? That explains it 4 stars
1/06/07 Bob Arrigon Outstanding film - exceptional acting! 5 stars
1/02/07 Matt Jones Absolutely overwhelming! Must see! 5 stars
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  25-Dec-2006 (R)
  DVD: 17-Apr-2007



Directed by
  Richard Eyre

Written by
  Patrick Marber

  Cate Blanchett
  Judi Dench
  Alice Bird
  Bill Nighy
  Andrew Simpson
  Juno Temple

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