Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Film Review #76: Notes on a Scandal
Director: Richard Eyre
Cast: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Simpson

It’s almost a throw-away line, one you could easily miss from a lesser actor. But by now our eyes are glued, saucer-sized, to her every move as if we were in a check-out line, not a movie theater. History teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) drops her consummate battle-ax thunder to a murmur and answers her visitor’s social banter. The younger, prettier woman, new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), trying always to please, has just exclaimed, “Oh you have a cat!”

“Standard issue for spinsters,” says Barbara softly, surgically, precisely. In a single phrase, she manages a disorienting half dozen or so messages. She’s acknowledged she fits a certain cliché, cast herself above it by saying so, suggested that Sheba can’t really be that surprised, made herself invitingly self-deprecating to the less confident woman, implicitly mocked the attitude that married women are happier, and denied her own deep affection for this cat, whose demise a ways down the pike will trigger a great deal of bodice-ripping and worse between these two so-called friends. For the longest time, Sheba is no match for “Bar.”

Nor for Steven Connolly (played by teen Andrew Simpson). In a film often called a guilty pleasure because it taps so accurately into our own wayward impulses, Sheba Hart has to juggle two stalkers. After some years married to Richard (Bill Nighy), the London college professor whose first marriage she broke up, Sheba’s now on the edge of middle age, with a pouty teen-aged daughter and a Down syndrome son. She’s inherited a nicer house than most of her teaching colleagues, half-heartedly turned the potting shed into a potter’s studio – “my lair,” she calls it – and now tries teaching. Nothing has really turned out. Her new students are unruly and won’t behave. Close-up, golden-haired Sheba – Barbara saves a single strand, tucked in her diary – has become indefinite and hesitant.

There is one boy, 15, whose family has come to London from the North of Ireland for factory work and lives in a high-rise project he doesn’t want Sheba to see. He pursues her with the same steamy single-mindedness one imagines she once applied to Richard. Cate Blanchett’s scenes with this boy are uncomfortably convincing. Meanwhile Barbara – as self-deluded as she is calculating – hopes Sheba’s desperate fear of exposure will somehow turn to gratitude and love. A string of melodramatic reversals, discoveries, manipulations and increasingly distraught confrontations ensue. Frankly I cannot imagine the whole thing not collapsing under its own weight, except for the edgy performances of Dench and Blanchett. And the long moment in their front doorway, when Nighy’s Richard finally lets Sheba back in to their marriage with the smallest jerk of his chin, nicely brackets the action by echoing Barbara’s early murmur about cats and spinsters.

Having solidly built his career upon stage-work, Richard Eyre has transitioned to television and film by directing classic drama adapted to screen, such as Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, King Lear) and Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard). He’s worked with Dench before – see his 2001 film bio of novelist Iris Murdock – and he directed the witty, many-layered film, Stage Beauty (2004), about the tensions between natural and enacted femininity via Elizabethan-era theater conventions. We could expect Eyre to come up with a complex and stagy villain in Barbara Covett, adapted from Zoë Heller’s novel. Between Heller, screenwriter Patrick Marber, Eyre and Dench – like Blanchett, stage-trained – we have a Covett at home with her own villainy in the way that Richard III or Iago are at home with theirs. In an eerie mirror of the out-sized staginess of the characters, the attraction that both Covett and Steven feel for Sheba is really more that of a fan than an intimate – one’s connection and future together largely imagined and one’s thwarted adoration quickly turned to rage.

The grand staginess and tabloid blowsiness of Notes on a Scandal threaten to obscure something else. Like a number of recent British films, this one comments upon history and what we make of it. Some US films express similar concerns with stories both more literal and more removed – revisiting World War II and subsequent early Cold War spy days of a half century ago. But English films are tackling history’s meaning sideways and metaphorically, with tales of how the young fare in the possible near future (Children of Men) and the recent past (both Notes on a Scandal and The History Boys occur a couple decades ago – explicitly not now). One character in The History Boys argues that no era is more difficult to fathom than the recent past, but Barbara Covett – after all a history teacher – hands in a mere half-page curriculum report concluding that history at St. George’s School needs no revision whatsoever.

And the result of Barbara Covett’s brand of rote history, in her case a prism of class resentment that explains everything and examines nothing? When Sheba Hart is first getting to know Covett, the lonely younger woman relaxes into a too-easy confidence, telling Covett more about her personal life and disappointments in one rainy afternoon than wiser adults might. Covett contemptuously lays this to Sheba’s enervated, undisciplined upper-class background. A considerate person might stop Sheba, refrain from taking advantage of her shaky sense of self. Ever the entrepreneur of others’ weakness, Barbara gathers evidence instead of exercising empathy. Her relation to the arts, itself a kind of shorthand, is telling too. We last see her on a park bench dangling a Sunday night chamber concert – the trappings of a finer life, presumably – as bait before her next target. US audiences might easily miss Notes on a Scandal’s astute dissection of recent-past class shifts and attitudes, distracted by its more operatic side. That would be a shame.

This review was written for
Stylusmagazine.com, for 1/18/07.