Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

Director: Richard Eyre
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Andrew Simpson, Bill Nighy
Running Time: 92 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

At some point in your life you've met someone like Barbara Covett. Maybe she lived down the street from you. Maybe she's your aunt. Or your babysitter when you were a kid. She could have been your math teacher. The one all the kids hated. You know exactly who she is. She's one of those old ladies who hide their emotional pain and loneliness behind a strict and demanding facade. At first she may seem nice, until she realizes you're not doing things exactly how she wants them done. It upsets her "plan." She lives for her job because she has no friends. She goes home to her cat.

In Notes on a Scandal Judi Dench gives one of the most realistic and frightening performances of the past year as this woman and one that justifiably earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. To call it a performance would be selling the achievement short. There's nothing in her work here that suggest she's "performing" anything. She becomes this person. In a way it both helps and hurts the film. It obviously helps create an incredible sense of realism within the story, but hurts because there's no way the story can deliver on what we'd expect from her character. If it does, the film runs the risk of heading into thriller territory. Think Fracture starring women. So what we have instead is basically everything you've seen in the commercial for the film and nothing more. It's a fascinating character study, but by the end I kind of found myself asking: "That's it?"

Barbara Covett (Dench) is a teacher nearing retirement who isn't exactly miss popularity with her colleagues and students at the school. Basically she's exactly as I described her above: Old, strict and cranky. The only satisfaction she gets from life is writing in her journal (which supplies the narration for this story) and caring for her aging cat, Portia. She's basically a good woman, but she's spent far too much time alone and it's starting to take its toll on her emotionally.

When the young, attractive Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett, also Oscar nominated here, but for Best Supporting Actress) joins the faculty as the new art teacher, Barbara takes an immediate liking to her. Well, that's not true exactly. She completely disapproves of her carefree attitude and lifestyle which she writes vigorously about in her journal. Still, she finds herself completely drawn to her and takes her under her wing. Barbara finally, for the first time in her life, has a real friend. Her friendship with Sheba soon turns to fascination and then to obsession.

One of the wise choices Patrick Marber's screenplay (which is adapted from the 2003 novel by Zoe Heller) makes is that it just hints at a lesbian sexual desire for Sheba on Barbara's part but never goes all the way with it. He wisely realizes it's creepier and more realistic if it lurks ambiguously just below the surface. She does little things like stroking her arm and keeping a strand of her hair but that's as far as it goes. However the way director Richard Eyre films it he lets us know that to Barbara it may even be more erotic than sex. After all, it's the closest she's probably going to get.

Sheba has an obession of her own: a 15 year-old student named Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson) whom she's been privately instructing after school. Her marriage to a much older man, Richard (Bill Nighy) is stagnant and she faces the stress of caring for a son with Down's Syndrome and dealing with a rebellious teenage daughter. For Sheba, Steven represents an escape from this. A release. At one point she even admits that she feels she's "entitled" to this student affair despite the fact it's so morally and criminally wrong. She's done everything right her entire life and now is the time to collect. In her warped rationalization she's earned it.

To the filmmaker's credit they actually cast someone who looks like he's a 15 year-old kid and they really go all the way with this. That took guts, on both the part of the filmmakers and the actors involved. It's really uncomfortable to watch this woman presumably in her late 30's or early 40's making out with and having sex with this kid, but that's the point. As an actor and a director you really have to believe in the material and think it's important to get it out there in order to do something like this. They do and it is.

While I was watching I couldn't help but wonder what the reaction would have been if the roles had been reversed. What if this had been a male teacher and a female student? Actually I do know what the reaction would have been. There wouldn't have been any because the film would have never been released. Both situations are wrong, but it's interesting how our society looks upon the two of them. The film knows this and also knows that the female teacher-male student dynamic is trickier territory to navigate. They'll be some sympathy for her even though she's an idiot and they'll always the be that portion of guys in the audience cheering this kid on and asking, "Why couldn't I have a teacher like that?"

One night after school Barbara discovers Sheba's secret and is thrust into an interesting position. Does she go to the school board (as she's contractually obligated to) with the information? Or does she keep the secret and use it to her own benefit? You could probably guess which option she takes.

Armed with this devastating and incriminating secret, Barbara uses it as a weapon to bring her and Sheba closer together. She makes it look like she's doing Sheba a favor by keeping quiet, but when Barbara feels her generosity isn't being appreciated or her affections reciprocated, she snaps. This leads to the best scene of the film when Barbara has a personal emergency and takes it upon herself to intrude on Sheba's family time. An emotionally and physically intense confrontation unfolds outside Sheba's car and you'd figure by this point she'd realize this woman isn't her friend and she's being blackmailed. That's not exactly what happens and it's from this point on that I felt the movie faltered a bit.

Without giving too much away, I think they pulled the trigger too early. I was hoping Barbara's schemes and blackmailing would escalate to dizzying levels with her further intruding upon Sheba's home life and leading the two on a collision course to self-destruction. I thought of 2003's brilliant House of Sand and Fog which took a believable everyday situation much like this and escalated it to incredible, but always believable heights. That movie had very sympathetic characters so it actually had a tougher job. Here, all the elements are perfectly in place for fireworks to go off, so there's no excuse. I didn't want it to turn into a psychological thriller but the stakes could have been raised further. It reminds me of a screenwriting course I once took where the instructor always advised us to "Raise the stakes!" At the time I thought that was silly advice (and it is if you take it too far), but it does apply here.

While I don't doubt the actions Barbara takes in this film are completely realistic and totally in line with what this person would do (after all she isn't rational), they really aren't all that exciting and make for a flat and somewhat inconclusive ending. She shouldn't have turned into a female Hannibal Lecter, but more could have been done with her in the third act. It's all but promised early on and all signs point to it. I understand this is an intimate character study and they wanted to be grounded in realism, but some opportunities were missed that could have turned this into an unforgettable film. This is only a minor complaint because on the whole this is a very intelligent motion picture that does an excellent job examining what drives us as human beings.

One of the smartest decisions made in the making of this film was the casting of Cate Blanchett. It has more of an impact on the success of the movie than it might appear at first glance. She has an unconventional beauty to her but she doesn't look so good that she's unbelievable as a real teacher, which would cause a distraction. Casting someone like, say, Jessica Alba wouldn't work. Yes, I'll concede the thought of Judi Dench stroking the arm of and collecting strands of hair from Alba is pretty hysterical, but this isn't supposed to be a comedy. It also helps that Cate Blanchett is one of our best actresses because she has the tricky task of portraying not just a woman who beds a 15 year-old, but a school teacher who makes a terrible and stupid mistake. Blanchett holds up her end of the deal as much as Dench does and delivers a ferocious performance.

The unsung M.V.P. performance of the film belongs to Andrew Simpson as the 15 year-old for doing just what he's supposed to do: act like a 15 year-old. If he did anything else, we'd feel the strings being pulled and the story would lose its impact. All of these characters are pathetic and unlikable, but they couldn't possibly be more authentic and that's where the movie strikes a chord. It sheds light on a sensitive, taboo subject in an intelligent manner without ever exploiting it. It's tricky terrain that the film navigates brilliantly. I'm willing to bet when these sorts of things occur this is exactly how they happen. Notes on a Scandal is a nice, little character study that could have been even more, but when it's over you'll definitely have a lot to consider and discuss.

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