Wednesday, January 17, 2007


With friends like these...

By Edward Copeland
Why didn't I like Notes on a Scandal more? Don't get me wrong — overall I did like the film a lot. In fact, for the first 40 minutes or so, I was positively riveted, by the writing and most especially the great performances of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Then, it began to wear on me and, maybe this sounds silly, but I blame Philip Glass.

I know — we are supposed to worship at the feet of this composer but honestly, when has he composed a film score that didn't leave you with either a splitting headache or in a state of catatonia?

Thankfully, Dench, Blanchett, director Richard Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber mostly succeed in waging their war of narrative against Glass' intrusive notes. In other cases, such as the wretched The Hours, Glass only made a bad situation worse.

Enough about Glass — let's discuss what is good about Notes on a Scandal, and there is a lot. At the top of that list is Dench, who seems to me to be making a concerted effort to atone for her Oscar win for the glorified cameo in Shakespeare in Love (where she was admittedly good) and her Harvey Weinstein-purchased nomination for Chocolat, that even she seemed embarrassed about.

Since then, she's done outstanding work in Iris and Mrs. Henderson Presents and I believe Notes on a Scandal to be her finest film work since Mrs. Brown sparked her late career screen stardom. (Though she stays true to the essential whoredom of British actors by continuing to get paychecks for the James Bond films).

Dench's work here as Barbara Covett, a spinster busybody of a school teacher with repressed lesbian and stalking tendencies, is superb. She creates a full-bodied monster, but still lets her humanity shine through. You hate her and you feel sorry for her at the same time.

Blanchett plays Sheba Hart, a younger teacher at the same school who Barbara befriends and hopes to catch in her web once she discovers that Sheba is having an affair with one of her 15-year-old students (Andrew Simpson).

The film never plays the affair for cheap Mary Kay LeTourneau-type thrills and it doesn't excuse Sheba's actions either. She obviously is as troubled as Barbara, but in entirely different ways. She knows what she's doing is wrong, but she can't stop, even when Barbara tries to "help her" end the affair and keep it secret from the school.

Of course, Barbara isn't trying to save her friend — she's stockpiling ammunition in hopes that she can make Sheba her new love obsession since her last one fled to another school to escape the old woman's needy grasp. However, Barbara turns on Sheba when Sheba "fails" her at what she considers a crucial emotional time for her to attend a play in which Sheba's 12-year-old son with Down syndrome is performing and Sheba's older husband (Bill Nighy, good in a rather small role) insists that she attend as he asks why Barbara hangs around all the time.

Soon, Barbara's machinations, motivated by pique, turn all their worlds upside down. Eyre and Marber, working from the novel by Zoe Heller, present the story very efficiently, with little that seems extraneous.

Blanchett performs well (and selling her as supporting is marketing at its finest — she and Dench are equals in the film), but we never get to see enough of what makes Sheba tick to understand why she does they things she does, from pursuing a friendship with Barbara in the first place to the affair with the teen.

In the end, Notes on a Scandal really belongs to Dench and her creation of Barbara, a screen harridan for the ages. Maybe when it comes out on DVD, they'll offer a track where you can delete the Glass score from the soundtrack and the movie will be even better.

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I'm looking forward to this one... I've always thought Dame Judi would make a great villain. She's kind of been in a great lady rut of late - so many regal and dignified grande dame roles - so I look forward to seeing her get down and dirty as a truly disturbed (and disturbing) character.
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God, I'd kill for a "mute Philip Glass's score" button on my DVD player remote. He's responsible for untold harm. Untold harm!

Overall, I disliked the movie. Dame Judi was wonderful, but I never bought Blanchett as a wispy bubblehead, and I thought Nighy was all over the place--his emotional states seemed to exist at the screenplay's whim instead of flowing logically. And I really didn't need to see the Predatory Unbalanced Older Lesbian revived. Is this 1950? Glass's Death By Overemphasis score was just the rancid frosting on the cake.
"the essential whoredom of British actors"... that's one of the most brilliant definitions I hace read! honest, Mr. Copeland... You should copyright it! it's really a recurring situation (and extensible to non-British stage actors) to see great talents with great voices hired for the hours.

It's the feeling I got when (i.e.) watching John Gielgud in "The First Knight"... ach ach, to see those great stage reputations downgraded for posterity in silly bit parts in lesser films! (it really hurts)
I think Olivier perfected it. The only Brit actor of note who seems to have been fairly immune from the practice is Paul Scofield.
Edward, your mention of Olivier reminded me of something Peter Ustinov wrote in his autobio "Dear Me", regarding his Spartacus cast mates: he described Olivier as the chaste vestale of stage and Laughton as the despickable Hollywood whore (With hindsight, isn't that something curious for Mr. Ustinov to say?).

I find curious that actors like Charles Laughton or, say, James Mason are often -and snottily- disregarded by some of their British stage colleagues -and stage stablishment- for working in America... particularly when these critics, in the end, often have sold themselves more cheaply... at least CL or JM tried their possible best when they were working on films: and good work on films survives for posterity... bad, rented-by-the-hour work of films (regardless of one's stage laurels) also does.
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