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Notes on a Scandal

dir: Richard Eyre
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What a nasty film. The biggest shame is that it’s taken me this long to get around to watching it, and reviewing it for you, the dear punters. You, who hang on my every word, who flat out refuse to watch a film or hire a DVD unless it has my seal of approval hoof print on it. It is for you that I labour, day in, day out.

And so onwards with the review. Notes on a Scandal was the other high profile British film last year. Notes, The Queen and The Last King of Scotland received a lion’s share of the nominations at the Oscars this year. Dame Judi Dench and Countess Cate Blanchett both received nominations for their work in this dark film, but both got dudded when it came to the Night of Nights. How perfectly feudal to have such royal paraphernalia cluttering up the one paragraph. One king, a queen and a Dame. If someone had given Blanchett a title, I would have had a royal flush.

As to their losing ways compared to the two other flicks, it’s not like it matters, since both of them have won them in the past. Dry your eyes. This isn’t like Peter O’Toole losing out after a sixty year career and no wins, as he stared forlorn at the stage, knowing that it was his last chance for an Oscar before Death comes to claims his body, and the devil comes to claim his soul (and liver).

Notes is probably not a better film than either The Queen or Last King of Scotland. But it’s still damn impressive, and The Dame and Cate rock the socks off the audience lucky enough to be watching them together.

School teachers. Who’d want to be one? I can think of few jobs on the planet I’d like to do less that being a teacher. I’d rather be the one who cleans up the nudie booths at porno theatres. I’d rather be an assistant to an ogre Hollywood producer like Scott Rudin (anyone who’s seen the film Swimming With Sharks might have some idea what that would be like). In short, I’d rather do any other job, no matter how menial, or how similar to my own soul-draining actual day to day job, than be a teacher.

But if Barbara (Dame Judi Dench to you, you bloody peasant) and Sheba (Cate Blanchett) weren’t teachers, then this story couldn’t be told.

Barbara is a grizzled, ancient teacher of long standing at a London public school. That’s public in the way we use the term in Australia, as in government school; not the way they use the term in Britain. Barbara has thinly veiled contempt for the other teachers she works with, and open loathing for the students in her charge. She is not liked, by either teachers or students, but she is respected. Most of the story is told via her entries in her diary, as her voiceover tells us what she really thinks about people and circumstances. And it also tells us of her diabolical plans.

Sheba is a much younger art teacher, and she’s pretty hopeless in her chosen profession. She is married to a much, much older man (Bill Nighy), and has a retard son and a daughter who, whilst no retard, is no prize herself. Well, she’s not unattractive, but she’s a teenage girl, which is even more trouble.

Barbara is not married, and lives alone. In fact, it seems the company of men has never interested her. She is drawn to Sheba, as are other people, and sees in her some hope for the much longed-for human contact that she craves. You see, Barbara has lived one of those lives of splendid isolation that ends up being neither splendid nor much of a life. She is repulsed by sex but she craves the time, the touch and the love of others.

It is her intent and her modus operandi to affix herself to the young, naïve Sheba much as a parasite attaches itself to a host. When Sheba inadvertently gives Barb an incredible hold over her, it is a given that Barb will exploit the situation for all it is worth, with her eye on a happy ending no-one else could ever imagine.

This woman, this vampire (not literally) is an incredible sight to behold; in thought and action she would make Machiavelli quake in his boots and put the fear of Satan into Cardinal Richelieu. Her longing and loneliness have transformed her into a single minded monster happy to do anything to achieve her ambition of not being alone. She craves Sheba’s attentions and, not to ignore it, since it constitutes the film’s creepiest scenes, physical affections.

Sheba, for her troubles, is something of a ditz. She, too, is lonely and craves something from someone else not within her family. But she doesn’t crave it from Barb. At first she is just polite to Barb, then, she’s grateful. Then, she’s beholden because of the hold Barb has over her. But even then, she has no idea as to the extremes of Barb’s longing, and what she’s willing to do to achieve her fantasy life.

There’s a phrase, and also the title of a David Mamet play referred to as a ‘Boston Marriage’. It was a 19th century term which obliquely referred to two women living together in a state of bliss that wasn’t necessarily a lesbian relationship. It’s not a legal term, it’s just a cloaking term that was used when two women chose to live their lives together without the involvement or clear support of any man.

Barb is clearly big with the concept of the Boston Marriage, and dreams and schemes to ensure Sheba is not only permanently in her debt, but is also divested of her pesky family, whom Barb imagines, as she writes in her diary, Sheba must secretly loathe and cannot wait to abandon.

We start off by assuming that Barb and her diary can be relied on: as narrator our assumption always lends itself to such being true. Usually it takes a while to realise that you’re at the mercy of an unreliable narrator with a shaky grip on reality. Barb certainly isn’t mad: this doesn’t turn into Fight Club with chicks, as it is not revealed that Sheba and Barb are the same person.

But she cannot be relied upon to tell us the truth either of her own motivations or of what is really going on in the hearts and minds of other people. We learn that Barb has something of a history with another younger, female teacher before Sheba came onto the scene, and it is through the progressive revelation of Barb’s desperate nature that we realise what she is capable of.

Both central performances are excellent, without doubt. Both women fill out their roles believably and don’t break character once. They’re both at the top of their game. They do amazing things with their dialogue and with their faces to convey more than dialogue can. Barb’s expression when she first sees Sheba transgressing, the joy when she realises how she can use this against her; Sheba when talking about how, as wonderful as family is, it doesn’t fill all the gaps inside, or when Barb puts her in a very difficult position through an impossible choice, or another scene where we know she’s humouring her in anticipation of meeting up with someone else. All great work.

The Scandal, of course, will prove the undoing of many people, but the hook is in how and why. Barb is happy to look the other way when a serious crime and breach of trust is committed as long as it serves her needs, but becomes a vengeful harpy when things don’t go her way. Sheba is weak and passive in some ways, and is easy prey for those looking to take advantage of her, but she still knows what is worth preserving in her life. And destroying.

There’s only one scene, and one plot device that don’t sit well with me at all, and they are inextricably linked, in that a scrap of paper and some gold stars lead to a character finding out about something, there’s a confrontation and then someone runs to the media bellowing like a stuck pig. That part could have been excised with no tears on my part. The revelation was necessary, I guess, no matter how clumsy, but the scene that follows smacked faintly of dumbness.

It’s hard to figure out where our sympathies and sensibilities are supposed to lie. Barb is too vicious, too needy a character for us to identify with, but we come to understand some of her motivations. Sheba is sweet, but keeps doing something terrible (from the point of view of the legal system and most parents, though not necessarily from the point of view of the ‘victim’), and is actually a bit annoying. Her desire to be desired by a person who is not her hideous old husband is understandable, but the path it takes her down is certainly not one we can relate to. As well played as both characters are, at different points I think we want to strangle both of them

If anyone does a crap job in this flick, it’s Bill Nighy as the aggrieved patriach, who admittedly I can rarely stand in anything because his supercilious manner makes me want to punch him in the throat every time I see him on the screen.

The ending is very strong, in that repercussions follow devastation, as they should. But even then we see right at the end, the flowering of hope, as someone tries to make a new friend. Good for her.

Otherwise, everyone does a superlative job acting wise and the direction is competent too. The Philip Glass score announces itself the second the opening credits start rolling, and persists throughout. All I can think of whilst listening to one of his ubiquitous scores these days as I hear them in films is “that’s a bloody repetitive Philip Glass score”, which pulls me out of the movie a bit.

The other great thing about the flick is that it doesn’t stick around too long. At 92 minutes it just breezes by, and is a very, at least for me, entertaining way to spend 92 minutes.

It’s still playing at arthouse cinemas, at least in Melbourne (as of 20/4/07), because it’s still proving popular with the older audiences craving quality adult movies. That’s ‘adult’ as in mature, not as in nudey rudey, you smutmerchants. At the very least, it was one of the best films of 2006. hands up and down.

8 barely legal teenagers that were not hurt during the making of this film out of 10

“Here come the local pubescent prowls. The future plumbers, shop assistants, and probably terrorists too. In the old days, we confiscated cigarettes and whack mags. Now it's knives and crack cocaine. And they call it progress.” - oh Barb, how I love you, Notes on a Scandal.