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Notes on a Scandal
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by Todd LaPlace

"A gold star movie."
5 stars

The novel version of “Notes on a Scandal” is actually titled “What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal.” The big question is who exactly is the title “she”? Is it Cate Blanchett’s Sheba, the bohemian art teacher and molester of teenage boys? That’s certainly the assumption, but Sheba is actually just a supporting role. The protagonist is Judi Dench’s Barbara, a closeted history teacher with a pension for seeking companionship with younger women. Could she be the title “she”? After all, she does spread the gossip that sets up the brilliant third act. Doesn’t that mean she’s responsible for her own fate? What the hell was she thinking?

Perhaps it’s because of her penchant for period costume dramas or perhaps it’s simply because she’s 72 and we’re not Harold and Maude, but I was struck with an odd realization while watching “Notes on a Scandal”; Judi Dench is terribly seductive. I’ll decline to comment on her physical appearance — although I’m sure many men of a certain age could — and instead focus on the husky tone to her voice, almost like a British Lauren Bacall. Even though she wasn’t the greatest beauty of her time, Bacall wins the award for the sexiest cinematic scene of the 40s when she taught Bogey to whistle — it’s from “To Have and Have Not” people! — and that same quality can be found when Dench’s hand hovers over Cate Blanchett’s bare legs and she says in her smoky voice, “This last month has been the most delicious time of my life.”

Of course, Bogey and Bacall were in the mutual flirting stages of their relationship, while Dench’s portrayal is decidedly less romantic. Dench plays Barbara Covett, a disenfranchised history teacher at a lower class middle school that serves as a breeding ground for “future plumbers and shop assistants, and doubtless the odd terrorist.” She’s a self-described “battle axe” that continues to teach out of repetition, rather than desire. Perhaps that’s why she is so initially taken by Sheba Hart (Blanchett), the wide-eyed new art teacher that still clings to her idealistic notions of elevating the students beyond their economic and social limitations. Even with the rest of the teaching staff tripping over themselves to befriend the new blood, Barbara relentlessly pursues her infatuation, which ultimately bears fruit when Barbara intervenes in a fight among two of Sheba’s students. Barbara quickly becomes a staple in the Hart household, a so-called bourgeois bohemia populated by elder husband Richard (Bill Nighy), dramatic teen daughter Polly (Juno Temple) and happy-go-lucky Ben (Max Lewis), who was born with Down syndrome and who Barbara coldly refers to as the house’s “court jester.”

The film’s structure is generally conventional, with the initial meeting filling the first act. But director Richard Eyre (who previously teamed with Dench on overlooked gem “Iris”) flips the second act by introducing the title disgrace. When Sheba is MIA at the school’s holiday show, Barbara catches her performing oral sex on a 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson) in her art studio. By now, the film’s marketing campaign has made the illicit affair well known, but Eyre still tips his hand too early through Philip Glass’s often overwrought score. When Barbara sees the light on in the studio and leaves the building to investigate, the music alerts us to the revelation that hasn’t yet happened. The sinister score swells as Barbara walks through the halls, but nothing is yet out of the ordinary until Sheba is caught in her compromising position.

In Zoe Heller’s original novel, “What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal,” the relationship between Barbara and Sheba is played as platonic, largely because Barbara seems like an ordinary, albeit slightly scheming, lonely old woman, and the romantic undertones aren’t revealed until late in the story. Eyre has jettisoned the subtlety and the lesbian relationship is now among the overtones. Barbara plays the dutiful friend, keeping Sheba’s secret as long as the affair ends, but her kindness is merely a ploy to get closer to her crush. Like a realistic “Fatal Attraction,” Barbara is determined to squeeze into the middle of Sheba’s happy home, with the eventual goal of breaking up the marriage and running off with her “companion.” Sheba, already caught up in a love triangle with her husband and teenage lover, hardly notices the romantic advances, which is why is doesn’t occur to her that Barbara may spill the secret to achieve her ultimate desire.

Having appeared in a variety of rigid period films (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” just to name a few), it’s nice to see Dench back in contemporary society. With the exception of her scene-stealing appearances as M in the James Bond movies, “Notes on a Scandal” is her first modern film since 2001’s “The Shipping News” (another underappreciated gem) and Dench makes the most of her new freedom. She seems to genuinely enjoy acting the villain, and in a Helen Mirren-free year, she’d stand a shot at the Oscar. Even without the big prize, Dench deserves credit for at least producing the least obtrusive voice-over of the year. Her diary narrations add a much desired internal weight to the story, offering us a glimpse into Barbara’s sad existence. Instead of constantly and annoyingly searching for higher meanings and life morals (I’m looking at you, Meredith Grey and Mary Alice Young!), Barbara’s writing is like juicy gossip between two old friends, exposing all of the ominous thoughts that cross through her head.

Blanchett is just as brilliant as the object of affection, whose awareness of the gravity of her indiscretion steadily increases as her reality slowly begins to crack. Having been Ben’s dutiful mother for 10 years, Sheba is isolated from those around her. It is that seclusion that leads to find genuine connections, even when those connections manifest as a sexual affair with a 15 year old. She allows herself to become swept up by her inappropriate urges, so even when faced with Barbara’s ultimatum, Sheba can’t fully release her teenage paramour. And Blanchett plays it all beautifully, especially during the third act when she seemingly loses her mind and goes on a destructive tirade.

Despite the lone musical misstep, Eyre’s minimal style is perfectly suited to “Notes on a Scandal.” Instead of overwhelming the film with technique, Eyre often keeps his players in standard medium shots, allowing them to take control of Patrick Marber’s script. It’s easy for a good director to stamp a film as their own, but it takes a great director to step back and allow his talented collaborators to own the film. Right through the film’s final creepy scene, “Notes on a Scandal” belongs to Dench, and we’re just the aghast audience along for the spectacular ride.

Judi Dench as a lonely old lesbian! Cate Blanchett as a teacher having an affair with her student! Richard Eyre, the director of “Iris” and “Stage Beauty”! Diary voiceovers! At this point, is it redundant to call it magnificent?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15304&reviewer=401
originally posted: 01/30/07 17:05:15
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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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