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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

DVD REVIEW: Notes on a Scandal (2006) ****

Notes on a Scandal (2006) poster
written by: Patrick Marber (screenplay) & Zoe Heller (novel "What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal)
produced by: Robert Fox & Scott Rudin
directed by: Richard Eyre

Here's a movie that I knew would be great because of the pedigree it carries and sure enough it is impressive -- so impressive, in fact, that it's tempting to imbue this sensational potboiler with more importance than it might deserves. Much of the credit has to go to Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett (both of whom earned Oscar nominations for their performances here), who save this from being a Lifetime movie special. The pair's oversized talents provide the weight for this psychological thriller; they tear into their respective roles with quite an intensity. The movie is adapted from the novel by Zoƫ Heller, detailing the ripped-from-the-headlines story of two British schoolteachers who harbor unhealthy obsessions. Due to the amazing performances of the two central leads, the story spends more time on need and betrayal and less on the actual scandal. I was fine with that because it seems that with every scandal there was at first a secret and finding who were the keepers of that secret is always most intriguing.

Judi Dench in Fox Searchlight's Notes on a Scandal
As we're introduced to each of the characters via the journal entries of Barbara Covett (Dench), an elderly spinster and school marm who leads a solitary existence with her cat and the volumes of diaries in which she records contemptuous observations about her colleagues and pupils. As she becomes taken with the school's new art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett), the film almost comes across more like a dark comedy than a thriller due to Barbara's observations and acerbic delivery by Dench with a dry and biting wit that cuts her fellow co-workers to the core. When Barbara comes to Sheba's aid during a classroom scuffle, they become quick friends. In her narration, Barbara sizes up Sheba as this "wispy novice," as she derisively calls the new teacher: beautiful, idealistic and lovably disheveled. Barbara is initially wary -- particularly since the rest of the faculty is so charmed by Sheba -- but the older woman's reservations melt once the two actually meet.

Sheba is warm, open-hearted and knows she's not the greatest teacher, and one day she invites Barbara to her home for dinner. There Sheba introduces Barbara to her much older husband Richard (the wonderful Bill Nighy) and their two children from his previous marriage, one of whom has Down syndrome. Barbara sits there at her guests house and cruelly breaks them down in her mind. It is in this scene where I became well aware of all the different facets Dench was conveying so excellently. Barbara, all dressed-up and polished for her lunch invite complete with flowers for her host exudes a graciousness and etiquette but with her narration we hear her insecurities, bitterness, and audacity. Both actresses are utterly captivating but you truly cannot stop watching Dench. Barbara is a surprisingly unglamorous role (albeit welcome) for Dench, dressed down as a sad and lonely woman looking for love or affection, but going about it all wrong.

Bill Nighy and Cate Blanchett in Fox Searchlight's Notes on a Scandal

Barbara senses Sheba's despair and loneliness, and she is deeply smitten. Still, she cannot admit, least of all to herself, that her desires for Sheba are anything but platonic. The relationship between these two women makes up the crux of the film, but Barbara's interest in Sheba goes far beyond friendship, and it's obvious from early on that her deeper feelings are unrequited. Clearly Barbara isn't the only dishonest one though....at an after-hours Guy Fawkes Night school function, she discovers Sheba's dirty little secret: She is having sex with one of her students, a arrogant 15-year-old boy named Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Newcomer Simpson does a fine job as her student, holding his ground against the more experienced actress in their scenes together. Barbara is outraged, but not for the usual reasons, reacting to Sheba's gross indiscretion as if it's a personal betrayal. But then Barbara calms herself. To her, this knowledge means power, she realizes, and suddenly the mean-spirited old woman understands she has the upper hand in this increasingly creepy friendship.

Both actresses are absolutely fantastic when on-screen alone, but when they're together, it's amazing, as they deliver a quick-fire repartee that elevates the film beyond its sometimes predictable plot twists. There's also something deeply amusing about watching respected actresses like Blanchett and Dench getting into a catfight, even though its more about the way they deliver their words than the conflict itself. That's due to the film's brilliant script, (which from what I've read) expands the distinctive tone of Heller's novel into a sharp and witty piece that maintains its inherent humor even when it starts to get dark and eerie in the last act.

Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in Fox Searchlight's Notes on a Scandal

While the two women and Simpson drive the film, one must take note of Bill Nighy who knocks it out of the park every time he's on screen. At first, Richard seems like the only benevolent character, but when he explodes at Barbara with a string of expletives, you know that he's not going to take her inexcusable behavior lying down. Even after that, he's one of the few characters that a viewer can feel sorry for, as he delivers a powerfully emotional performance after learning the truth. On that note, you can almost feel sorry for the two women despite their behavior and once again that's just a testament to their actresses abilities.

Despite the subject of a thirty-something, former Goth girl having relations with a cheeky teen boy being quite unsettling, there's something else that is equally disturbing. The relationship between Sheba and her 15-year-old student isn't nearly quite fathomable, since Sheba seems far too intelligent and mature to get a schoolgirl crush on a mere boy, let alone allow herself to be seduced. Then again, it's hard to ignore the similarities between their story and that of Marie Kate LeTourneau, a real-life incident that makes us aware that something like this can indeed happen. Despite her unwise indiscretion, one can't help but empathize with Sheba's feelings of feeling trapped and even entitled, which may not have been the case in the hands of a different actress.

Richard Eyre directs with a precise, unflinching eye that matches the coldly devastating yet clever script by Patrick Marber. The film is certainly the antithesis of a warm and fuzzy. It really digs into the human mind, probes the darkest recesses of loneliness and sexual obsession – and guts it. There is much to admire here, including Philip Glass' alluring music score. The movie's only slight quibble is the Hannibal Lector-esque ending, which seemed almost silly but still within character. Ultimately, Dench and Blanchett carry the film, making it a deliciously tasty melodrama. Both are simply terrific as characters who are certainly unsympathetic, but consistently interesting.

Special Features:

Fox crams in the extras, but the best are the first two listed. Director Eyre's commentary doesn't offer much in the way of making-of anecdotes, but he provides insight into the psychology behind the story and characters. Notes on a Scandal: The Story of Two Obsessions covers the film's thematic concerns through interviews with Eyre, Heller, Marber and the cast. More provocative than your run-of-the-mill featurette, this min-doc invites a deeper exploration of the movie's central characters. Then Notes on a Scandal: Behind the Scenes is typical promotional fare that covers much the same territory; in fact, parts of The Story of Two Obsessions are repeated here. The rest is middling. In Character With: Cate Blanchett is a bit of fluff courtesy the Fox Movie Channel Webisodes are promotional clips that highlight various aspects of the film: "Judi and Cate: Behind the Scandal," "The Screenplay," "Judi Dench" and "Cate Blanchett." The segments include a mediocre Conversation with Bill Nighy and Cate Blanchett. Viewers can view each Webisode separately or select the "play all" option. The Webisodes have an aggregate running time of 13 minutes, 50 seconds. Rounding out the supplemental material is a theatrical trailer.

Cate Blanchett and director Richard Eyre on the set of Fox Searchlight's Notes on a Scandal

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