Eye For Film >> Movies >> Notes On A Scandal (2006) Film Review
Compelling. Insidious. Addictively seductive.
In his earlier adaptation, Closer, twice Academy-nominated scriptwriter Patrick Marber divided critics and audiences alike with his portrayal of head on emotional pile ups, memorable epigrams and unsettling moral ambiguity.
Notes On A Scandal shows little sign of light relief. Towering performances by Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett make us squirm in our seats. Dench plays Babs, an upright, responsible and impressively capable schoolteacher - she is also the epitome of evil. Blanchett is her colleague Sheba, the character we love - except she has just shagged a fifteen-year-old boy (Andrew Simpson).
The film is a cutting psychological drama that packs a wallop. Babs is old and lonely, plotting friendship with a degree of manipulation that comes from need rather than love. Sheba is the new art teacher, full of idealism and warmth, though hardly suited to the battleground of the modern classroom. "Teaching is crowd control," Babs advises her and ironically describes it as "a branch of the social services." She is cynical, knows she is not liked, but can rule the children, whom she describes as “feral,” with an iron fist.
Sheba is in awe of her. She is totally open and allows a friendship to develop. One of the children is gifted at drawing but prevented from doing art because he has to catch up in more academic subjects. Sheba sees his potential and, rebuffed by the headmaster, offers to give him lessons after school. She is having problems at home and gives in to his charms. But Babs has spied on her and sees a way to exert control.
The film is very much a creation of Marber, faultlessly directed by Richard Eyre and brilliantly supported by Philip Glass's score. It is based on a book by Zoë Heller, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Whereas the novel plays on ambiguity for a long time, the film throws the emotional dynamics into sharp and immediate contrast. Babs's world is bitter and full of tension and carefully recorded in detailed diaries - the Notes of the title. She gets more cutting one-liners than most actresses could even dream about. Editing, colours, music, all help to set our teeth on edge.
When we go into Sheba's world, everything changes - flowing camerawork, soft pastels, endearing close-ups. A son with Down's Syndrome makes great demands on her, but also lets us see how giving she is. She has a beautiful house and family; her father is a famous economist and her (much older) husband (Bill Nighy) is slightly bohemian upper-class. Everything reflects her graceful, gentle, caring, artistic personality.
It is hard not to love Blanchett as much as we hate the brilliantly demonic Dench. Sheba is the one ray of beauty in Babs's horrible, twisted world. Babs fantasises that they "share the ability to see through the quotidian awfulness of things." Although her lesbian tendencies are not explicit, there is a faint hint of Beryl Reid in The Killing Of Sister George. But Sheba's world is deceptively less than perfect. Her family look down on her. Her husband is too old. She is a failure as a teacher. She feels that she gives love all the time but cannot grasp a tiny straw of happiness herself. She needs to find a way out of her pain, while Babs doesn't let anyone into hers. She sees Sheba's folly with the boy as "the neurotic compulsions of a middle-aged woman with marital problems."
The film’s weakness is that it is not as morally complex as it seems initially and doesn't provide answers to the degree of culpability. Like its vampiric antagonist, it manipulates our sympathies, yet lacks the complexity of Closer. However, it is still a tour de force that makes us examine the difference between relationships based on need and those on love.
A tale of control freakery. It gets under the skin.Reviewed on: 02 Feb 2007