Directed by: Richard Eyre
Starring: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Tom Georgeson, Andrew Simpson
Despite the highly-acclaimed performances of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett (both Oscar nominees for their work here), Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal is a work that just skirts being tabloid fodder. What else could you call a story about a teacher in her late 30s having an affair with a teenage student, while a 60-odd-year-old fellow teacher—a repressed, predatory lesbian—uses her knowledge of the relationship as leverage for her own obsession with her younger colleague?
Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber (Closer) realized this, and shrewdly avoid the potential onus by admitting that their basic storyline is the stuff tabloid dreams are made of. By incorporating the ultimate (and not entirely accurate) tabloid press response into the events of the film, they provide a device that moves it to a higher level, allowing it to have its trash and decry it, too. This doesn’t change the story, but permits the film to address the issues raised by the story in an intelligent rather than leering manner. Moreover, it does something else—something that gives the film an uncomfortable quality—it reminds us of our own collective penchant for tabloidiana. However, the movie is finally about far more than its story.
In common with the last film Marber scripted, Mike Nichols’ Closer (2004), this is a film about impossible human relationships—relationships that are impossible because of the less than honest nature of the people involved. Worse, all the characters are looking for validation in others without ever really knowing the people. The Sheba Hart (Blanchett) of Barbara Covett’s (Dench) imagining is no more real than Sheba’s image of Barbara as a sweet old lady in search of a friend. This point is driven further home by Sheba’s infatuation with a remarkably unremarkable teenager, Stephen Connolly (Andrew Simpson, Song for a Raggy Boy). He’s passably good-looking and has a very slight artistic aptitude, but Sheba’s vision of him elevates him on every level in her own mind. If what she wants him to be isn’t what he is, she’s perfectly capable of grafting those qualities onto him. (Thematically, the film not only resembles Closer, but also Roger Avary’s 2002 film version of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel The Rules of Attraction.) Additionally, Stephen has his own version of Sheba—and has manipulatively created an image of himself that he thinks will most appeal to Sheba. (The film is not content to make him a simple victim.)
In fact, every major character in the film is manipulative in one way or another—as much with himself or herself as with the other characters. Barbara has bamboozled herself into believing that she only has Sheba’s best interests at heart. Sheba deludes herself into thinking she’s some kind of savior/mentor for Stephen. She’s also willfully in denial as concerns Barbara’s intentions, but then Barbara never admits the nature of her desires to herself. (Dench beautifully conveys this in her physical performance.)
The brilliance of the film’s concept is matched by the screenplay and the performances. We know full well that Barbara is a kind of monster, but from the moment she cynically sizes up the year’s new crop of students—“Here come the local pubescent proles—the future plumbers and shop assistants, and perhaps there’s the odd terrorist, too”—she has us. And in Dench’s hands, Barbara never lets us go; the acerbic wit never fails. Even late in the film when she sits back to watch her destructive handiwork, it shines through: “By the time I took my seat in ‘the gods’ [gallery]’, the opera was well into its final act.” But her biting remarks are always tempered by the sense of her bitter sadness, which in turn is tempered by her moments of uncanny perception (her reading of Stephen is pretty much dead-on). It’s a brilliant role and a brilliant performance—witty, hateful and heartbreaking all at once. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum; Blanchett’s almost equally fine work and that of reliable Bill Nighy as Blanchett’s cuckolded husband enhance it. Plus, the performances are housed in an important, perceptive film that may not always be entirely pleasant, but invariably rings true. Rated R for language and some aberrant sexual content.