Notes on a Scandal Review
Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is a misanthropic history teacher who has bad hair, smokes too much and drives a rundown old Golf. In relation to her lot in life, she is given to this kind of observation: 'In the old days we confiscated cigarettes and wank mags, now its knives and crack cocaine… and they call it progress.' She records such thoughts in fountain pen in her diary, which runs to many volumes and is the only outlet for her real feelings. Barbara's words come off the page to form an incisive voice-over, lending the film a noir edge that progresses promisingly. Everything is grist for her acerbic gaze, and she reserves special scorn for the attractive new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), whose trendy attitudes, dress sense and politics come in for heavy criticism.
But then the two women become friends and Barbara starts to melt, just a little. She is welcomed into Sheba's home and meets her older husband Richard (Bill Nighy), teen daughter Polly (Juno Temple) and son Ben (Max Lewis), who has Downs Syndrome. It becomes clear that Barbara regards Sheba as an object of desire, though she still maintains an emotional distance in the diary, and can't resist disparaging her family - Ben is referred to as a 'court jester'.
One evening Barbara happens to witness Sheba having a sexual encounter with a fifteen-year-old pupil, Steven (Andrew Simpson). She challenges Sheba and forces her to give a full account of the events, which are shown in flashback. On one level, Barbara is annoyed by Sheba's interest in someone other than herself; but on another, she realises she's now gained a decisive advantage in her own game plan.
Unfortunately, at this point the film hits a snag. The characterization of Steven is very literal, and he looks exactly the right age and what he's meant to be - a callow youth - but an unremarkable, chavvy, and foul-mouthed youth, with no special qualities to recommend him. That such a lad should knock an elegant woman like Sheba off her feet and make her risk everything, is utterly unbelievable. Though she tries to explain away her gullibility, citing marriage difficulties and so forth, it doesn’t convince. Age difference notwithstanding, the chemistry simply isn't there between them. For the encounter to work, Steven would need to be some beautiful angel of death, like Tadzio in Death in Venice, and he's nowhere near.
This problem inevitably leads to the next, which is the depiction of sex between these two. How to show sex is a tenuous issue at the best of times - especially when the movie hinges on sex. At one end of the spectrum, we have the extended tender explicitness of Don't Look Now, and the anthropological realism of Intimacy; at the other there's all that coy, silly stuff where women keep their bras on in bed or hold sheets over their breasts, or where everything is seen in silhouette accompanied by twee music. In Notes on a Scandal, we get desperate, fully-clothed couplings in mucky alleyways and garden sheds, plus on other occassions the odd sight of bare flesh after the event. It's supposed to be dangerous sex, but it doesn't look or feel dangerous, or even real. And the unrelentingly fulminating score from Philip Glass doesn't help either.
Then there's the issue of Barbara's character. She starts out as a jaded, but essentially balanced woman, and then transforms by degrees into a kind of Bloomsbury bunnyboiler. There is a key scene where Barbara reveals herself to the Hart family as a monstrous obsessive, and soon afterwards the floodgates of the scandal burst open. So why then do they continue to treat her with deference and fail to recognise her as troublemaker-in-chief? Answer: because that confrontation is being put on hold for the film's ridiculously over-the-top - and guessable - climax. This point is reached through several clumsy plot devices, together with relying on our trust that certain characters won't talk to one another, and that intelligent people can't add two and two to make four.
There are glaring faults of plotting and casting with Notes on a Scandal, but nonetheless the actors do an excellent job within the available parameters. It's refreshing to see Judi Dench in a downbeat role, and she brilliantly conveys all the pent-up bitterness of a crusty old pedagogue. She makes the inner Barbara remain believable in the face of a rising tide of improbability, and that's no mean feat. Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy also do well as the troubled couple, though they struggle a bit as the bathos descends and Sheba goes into her Siouxsie Sioux impersonation.
With so much talent in front and behind the camera - the illustrious Richard Eyre directs - it's hard to fathom how Notes on a Scandal has turned out to be such a dog's breakfast. At bottom, the film isn't sure whether it wants to be a drama or a melodrama, and in trying to wear both hats, it defeats itself. Perhaps commercial pressures persuaded the production team to make poor choices. Or again it could be the old pitfall of translation of book to celluloid. I haven't read the original Zoë Heller novel, so I can't dogmatise on the similarities and differences between book and film; but I know the novel takes the form of the actual text of Barbara's diaries, and so everything is filtered through her skewed viewpoint. Indeed the film is best in the earlier stages, where Barbara's voice-over predominates, but that approach isn't sustainable. The unreliable narrator is hard to do in film, due to the necessary objectivity of the camera's gaze, and perhaps here lies a cautionary tale for others who may be tempted to follow the same route.