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Awesome: 32.76%
Worth A Look41.38%
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6 reviews, 22 user ratings

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Notes on a Scandal
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Windows 2006"
2 stars

“Notes on a Scandal” is the film that “Snakes on a Plane” wanted to be. As this may well be the single strangest opening line for a review written this year, allow me to explain. With its self-consciously silly title and tone, “Snakes” was clearly trying to position itself as some kind of modern camp masterpiece but the problem with that approach is that campiness is not something that can be deliberately created from scratch–it can only develop organically thanks to a combination of overheated performances, astoundingly purple prose and, most importantly, absolutely no indication from those involved that what they are doing is supposed to be funny–and “Snakes” was trying so hard to be camp that it just became aggravating after a while. “Notes on a Scandal,” on the other hand, is clearly positioning itself as a serious bit of Oscar bait–it contains the acclaimed likes of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett going head to head in a project based on an award-winning novel adapted by the author of “Closer,” directed by the man behind “Iris” and featuring a score from acclaimed composer Philip Glass–and everyone involved seems to have entered the project with the most serious of intentions but it goes off the rails so completely and totally, without any of the players seeming to notice, that it becomes an inadvertent laugh riot on a scale perhaps not seen since “Mommie Dearest” threw viewers for a loop 25 years ago

Dench stars as Barbara Covett, a grumpy teacher at a shabby British middle school whose no-nonsense demeanor and acid tongue have hardly endeared her to her fellow teachers, students or anyone else–her only evident relationships seem to be with her housecat and the diary in which she snarkily details ever moment of her existence. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) arrives to serve as the school’s new art teacher, Barbara is just as unimpressed with her as with everything else in the world–she pegs her (perhaps correctly) as a privileged twit with silly notions of single-handedly being able to right the wrongs of the world by teaching middle-class snots how to draw. However, Barbara is taken aback when Sheba actually reaches out to befriend her and decides that she may have judged her new colleague too harshly–sure, she is silly, her much older husband (Bill Nighy) is a drag and her two children are worse (a son with Down’s Syndrome is described in Barbara’s jottings as “some kind of court jester”) but she does have a certain charm about her that could be cultivated into something worthwhile after all. To our eyes, it is evident that Barbara is developing a sort of crush on Sheba, even if Sheba herself doesn’t seem to notice it and even if Barbara is the type for whom the word “crush” only refers to smashing something under your shoe.

Things change radically when Barbara catches Sheba after school hours having sex with a 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson) that we had previously seen her gazing longingly at out in the schoolyard. When Barbara confronts her with this information, Sheba confesses all, expecting the immediate loss of her job, family and freedom, and is surprised to learn that Barbara has no plans to report her as long as she promises to break off the affair immediately. Of course, Sheba thinks that Barbara is doing simply out of friendship and doesn’t realize that she plans on using this information as a tool by which to further insinuate herself into Sheba’s life. When the increasingly possessive Barbara, already distraught over the untimely death of her overly symbolic cat, learns that Sheba’s relationship with the boy hasn’t ended, she decides to turn things up a notch by secretly informing the school about the affair so that she can be there to help pick up the pieces when Sheba’s life inevitably disintegrates into public scandal. This doesn’t quite work out as well for Barbara as she might have hoped as she herself has a few secrets of her own that come back to haunt her when Sheba gets wind of them.

The problem with “Notes on a Scandal” is not with the story itself but the manner in which it has been told. For it to work correctly, at least the way that I see it, we need to see the story exclusively through Barbara’s eyes, at least through the first half or so, so that we perceive her as being the only honest person left in a world filled with dolts, slags and slack-jawed morons and understand her actions as being the desperate but wholly understandable acts of someone trying to do right by someone who doesn’t really deserve it out of the goodness of her heart. Later on, after Sheba’s affair is revealed and Barbara magnanimously takes her in, then the film can pull back from that point-of-view and shock us by showing her as the bitter, manipulative person that she really is and that everyone but herself and maybe Sheba can so plainly see. Alas, this is the kind of narrative trick that can only really be pulled off on the printed page, I suppose, and while the film makes the other characters seem like loathsome losers, it also positions Barbara virtually from the start as the kind of diesel-dyke ballbuster that makes Rosa Klebb look like a model of restraint by comparison. As a result, every single person on the screen is a histrionic caricature shouting out Patrick Marber’s purple prose as if they were afraid that one person in the cheap seats might be at risk of not hearing them.

The film still might have worked if it had been made by a director willing to embrace the luridly over-the-top nature of the material by providing the proper cinematic showcase for such showboating–if Robert Aldrich, the auteur of such nutty campfests as “The Legend of Lylah Clare” or “The Killing of Sister George” (which was essentially the 1960's version of this story), were alive today, I can see him tearing into the project with zeal. Alas, Richard Eyre may be many things but he is no Robert Aldrich and instead of charging full-speed ahead without apologies, he goes for a restrained cinematic style that is totally at odds with the material he is presenting. While his actors are giving us grand opera (the high point–or low, depending on your point-of-view–comes during a scene in which we are treated to the concurrent sights of Barbara screaming about her dead cat, Sheba screaming to keep her from revealing too much, Sheba’s husband screaming about Barbara’s mysterious influence and Sheba’s son pitching a fit in the back seat of a car), Eyre seems intent on directing an intimate chamber piece and the collision of the two approaches is so incongruous that too many scenes wind up inspiring more unintentional laughs than most recent comedies. (Don’t even get me started on the pounding Philip Glass score, which adds an extra layer of cheesy pretentiousness to the proceedings.)

Okay, so “Notes on a Scandal” isn’t convincing for a moment on the level of serious-minded drama–does that mean that it isn’t worth watching at all? Well, while the central performances from Dench and Blanchett are fairly ridiculous from the get-go–Dench gives us another one of her patented flinty performances while Blanchett offers up an oddball blend of limpid sensuality and outright stupidity–they do attack the roles with the sort of take-no-prisoners energy that is sort of watchable on some fundamental level. And as I have indicated, it is so batty for the vast majority of its running time that fans of inadvertent comedy are likely to have a field day with it while those expecting the serious drama promised by the ads and some of the fawning reviews are likely to walk away scratching their heads in sheer confusion. Here’s a helpful test to see if you are the right person to see this film. In the headline, you will notice that I refer to the film as “Windows 2006.” If that reference makes any sense to you whatsoever, you just might be the kind of person who would get a kick out of this nonsense. If not, you may want to find something else to watch this weekend.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15304&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/28/06 15:11:32
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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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