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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Instead of becoming the tawdry, salacious affair it could've easily
been, two masterful and textured performances from two of our greatest
actresses catapult "Notes on a Scandal" to the echelon of art-house
entertainment. In one corner, we have Dame Judi Dench as the lonely
schoolmarm and mentor. In the other corner, we have Cate Blanchett as
the flighty but endearing new art teacher just begging for someone to
take her under their wing. The film starts innocuously enough, with the
two women becoming fast friends, with Blanchett inviting Dench into her
home and family, and Dench all too eager to find a new best friend.
Deliciously seasoned with spicy subtexts involving the bourgeois sense
of entitlement, the bitterness of the lower middle class, the
candidness of those with everything who never seem to be satisfied, the
resentment of those sucked into this confidence, and of course, the
psycho-sexual entrapments of all relationships, "Notes on a Scandal" is
rife with everyday tragedy. The convoluted subtexts often take
precedence over what is being seen on screen, until Dench's voice-over
entrances us and sucks us in.
In the early scenes where Dench is describing her burgeoning fascination with Blanchett, the audience shares in the allure as Dench paints beautifully the appeal of Blanchett's talents as an actress. Soon, though, the fantasy makes way for reality, and Blanchett as raw and vulnerable as she has ever been falls under the spell of a troubled 15 year-old boy with whom she begins an illicit affair. Blanchett's folly is mirrored in Dench's obsession with becoming her sole confidant.
Director Richard Eyre (who previously directed Dench in the superb "Iris") structures the film in a crisp clip. As the plot quickly goes through the motions, secrets are revealed, true natures are uncovered, and the lives of both women become tragically entangled as they unravel.
Enough can't be said about Dench's mastering of the thespian art form. She could've easily dived head first into this role and delivered something akin to Kathy Bates turn as the mad spinster in "Misery." Instead, she adds subtlety, humor, and melancholy in her perfectly balanced performance that allows you to sympathize with her character for the loneliness she feels while at the same time hating her for her opportunism and bitterness.
Likewise, Blanchett, manages to play to our sympathies, and it's easy to see why Dench, the boy in question, and Blanchett's husband (a shockingly good Bill Nighy), are completely smitten with her despite her impetuousness.
With betrayal leading to hatred and a complete breakdown of all things sacred in human connections, the climactic showdown between The Dame and The Cate is the type of goose-bump inducing acting tour de force moviegoers dream about. There's also a sense of a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation of great actresses to the next. Far from being just the highbrow version of "Single White Female," "Notes on a Scandal" entertains and provokes those willing to enjoy the psychologically complex roller coaster.
Watching the emotionally intense black comedy, "Notes on a Scandal,"
you, too, may feel like its main character, Barbara, who reflects in
one of her many voice-overs, "The opera has begun and I have a
front-row seat." Directed by Richard Eyre ("Iris," "Stage Beauty" and
the exceptional TV version of "Suddenly, Last Summer" with Maggie Smith
and Natasha Richardson), "Notes" bravely wades into modern-day Grand
Guignol as the tension between its two female stars heads inevitably
toward a showdown.
Patrick ("Closer") Marber's melodramatic screenplay cleverly makes use of Barbara's voice-overs as she scribbles in her diary and makes jaded, bitter observations about the world around her. Abundant voice-overs usually point toward shortcomings in a drama, but here they provide irony and serve to enhance the dialog.
In her juiciest role since "Mrs Brown," Judi Dench brings an element of sympathy to Barbara, a closeted, self-loathing lesbian school teacher attracted to the new art teacher, Sheba, played by Cate Blanchett. Madly hoping to wrest the heterosexual Sheba from her husband and two children, one of whom has Down Syndrome, Barbara stumbles upon Sheba's sexual dalliance with a 15-year-old student. In a Machiavellian turn, Barbara hopes to manipulate Sheba by maintaining her secret . . . with strings attached. Need I add that all does not go well?
In fact, escalating histrionic fireworks ensue. Blanchett holds her own in this emotional and physical battle royal, capping her incredible year (2006) that also included outstanding performances in "Babel" and "The Good German." As Sheba's husband, Richard, Bill Nighy also comes through with a powerhouse performance. The moody score by Philip Glass is icing on the cake.
At a tidy 92 minutes, "Notes on a Scandal" is highly concentrated and vivid. The recently announced Golden Globe nominations include Dench, Blanchett and Marber, so we can expect Oscar nods as well.
What a treat to watch three of the best actors of our time in the same movie! Judy Dench is an international treasure; Cate Blanchett never looked better or created a more compelling character in any of her other movies, and I had the good fortune to discover Bill Nighy on Broadway in "The Vertical Hour" with Julianne Moore the night before I saw "Notes from a Scandal," and I now want to see everything he's done. A superlative creator of character. "Notes from a Scandal" tells us a lot about the "British" penchant for relishing "scandals" (they invented the tabloid press) and also about the odd, intersecting relationships that have become a nearly commonplace reality in the contemporary world. Both Blanchett and Dench (as Sheba and Barbara) teach at the same Islington secondary school. And both, in very different ways, embark on "inappropriate" relationships that create turmoil in their lives and the lives of their community. Judy Dench conveys the desperate loneliness of her character's life and a remarkable scene of her smoking a cigarette in a bathtub conveys the distinction between her kind of loneliness--an older, unattractive, single woman with no real connections in life--and the more endurable kinds of loneliness that many of us share. This is a gripping film that moves crisply from one scene to the next, missing only a very few beats along the way. A must see.
This is a story told through the proper subjective medium, film, with
such painful, cynical candor for how Barbara has spent a life
disabusing herself of any rose-tinted notion of life or people. The
price? Absolute, utter loneliness. The dynamic human images we see our
narrated by the day-by-day items in the diary she zealously keeps as a
sanctuary, and an affirmation. The movie fixes on acts of indiscretion
and disloyalty, entailing not just our scathingly wise narrator and her
new teaching colleague Sheba, but Sheba's husband, the headmaster, a
teacher infatuated with Sheba, and a 15-year-old student. Each believes
their reasons are sincere, but are all entrenched in variations of
self-deception. As Barbara says, in one of the most tellingly human
things I've ever heard in a movie, "It takes courage to recognize the
real as opposed to the convenient."
Dench and Blanchett, as Barbara and Sheba, share not only a gift for deep behavioral detail but a skill at withholding or telegraphing charm and beauty, as required. This may be one of the numerous reasons why they're as compelling as they are. It's definitely part of why this is some of their finest work. It's part of the drama's mechanism. Were Sheba not the breed of beauty she is, a naive, impressionable, coddled pixie, then we couldn't appreciate how intensely Barbara wants her. It's not exactly love so much as controlling, envious fixation on Sheba's stunning upper-class ease. And were Barbara not a teakettle of seclusion boiling through decades of disillusionment, we couldn't identify with how distorted the manifestation of that affection becomes.
That's the marvel of the movie: It's about the venomous influence of loneliness, viewed through a tale of two people in love. But unfortunately for both, not with one another. Sheba becomes smitten with a cute but cagey student. Played with what seems like natural hyper-confidence by Andrew Simpson, he sees an occasion in the way she looks at him. She has no clue of how defenseless she truly is. It's not only dishonest and unethical, she tells herself, it's totally ludicrous, but when he cups her face and says, "You're beautiful, Miss," she melts.
Barbara, meanwhile, fosters an obsession in her diary, relating thoughts precariously bordering on fantasy. Barbara's seclusion within the school is total, but Sheba is somebody who hasn't experienced her acidity. Barbara can smother someone with good turns and not be rejected. She helps Sheba win control of her students. "One soon learns that teaching is crowd control. We're a branch of social services." Sheba asks her to Sunday roast, where Barbara describes Sheba's family with characteristically rancorous humor. Dench's delivery of these delectably spiteful lines is an triumph in vocal meticulousness and tone that is its own prize. Even when this apparent ice queen drops minute words of vulnerability like "Is that why she hasn't returned my calls?" there's an extra intensity in how strongly we can all relate to the insecurities of her inner voice.
There are giftedly handled, extraordinarily candid scenes of rage, humiliation and disgrace, and cruel physical and emotional clashes of immense force. The teachers are somewhat caricatured, but that's because they're filtered through Barbara's misanthropic viewpoint. If it's her omniscient voice we're hearing, it's through her omniscient eyes we're seeing what she describes, and it's the figures who allow her access to their humanity who have profundity and delicacy in their depictions. A wholly earnest Dench brings to Barbara that frigid reserve that's somehow one with a despairing need for consolation and affection. Early on, Sheba is basically an alluring figurine, watched from afar. When our voyeuristic chronicler discovers Sheba's business with the student, Sheba grows immense dimension.
We start to see Sheba's own manner of advantaged lonesomeness or just tedium. "Marriage, kids, it's wonderful," she presumingly explains, "but it doesn't give you meaning." Blanchett brilliantly uses her character's advantages to betray her. The grim lesson she's about to learn from Barbara seems belated, even valuable. People like Sheba, according to Barbara, and I'm sure you'll agree, think they know loneliness, but they know nothing of planning one's whole weekend around a laundry errand, or being so continually untouched that the inadvertent sweep of a stranger's hand ignites years of sexual longing.
What I adore about the film is this discerningly intricate moral kaleidoscope weaved in completely modern domestic terms. It's going on in your neighborhood, not just Islington. There are scandals like this every year, and we dismissively conjecture from what little we gather. The cunning concept here is that we're seeing it through the sieve of Barbara, and whose transgressions transcend contemporary know-it-all assumptions.
NOTES ON A SCANDAL is a Judi Dench "triumph" of brilliant wit, pain and
a satanic passion for a woman out of reach in Cate Blanchett. Her
"Judas" to her supposed friend and fellow teacher is an acting
performance which will land Ms. Dench right back in "Oscar country".
Too bad it is in the same year as Helen Mirren's magnificent "Queen" as
Dench gives a show here in NOTES ON A SCANDAL that leaves you quite
breathless to the last and final scene and fade out.
Patrick Marber delivers a deliciously wicked, witty and crisply written script in NOTES, and it only enhances his reputation for giving an audience a story well developed and with characters that you can't take your eyes off on the screen. His writing in CLOSER was so brilliant and clever, but in NOTES ON A SCANDAL he hands Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett words that are zingers and with a strong blend of anger, pain and humor. Please, Patrick, gives us another film quickly! The "teacher/student" romance was well developed and the chemistry between the two actors was believable and very sexual, and one could understand the youthful passion delivered by a young man with a strong mind and body. I did at times have to listen carefully to the young actor's lines, but he delivered them like a pro.
In the weeks ahead, I anticipate a "roar from the crowd" for this very dark and witty Judi Dench performance and who knows, she may upset "The Crown" in the end come Oscar time.
Every film should aspire to be as satisfying as this one is - on every
level, and there are so many layers to it all. Nothing is as it appears
and the film unwinds in the form of comments and voice-overs from the
many journals of the protagonist.
Judi Dench, yet again, sinks her teeth into the part of Barbara Covett, a cynical and acerbic history teacher putting in time in an inner city school.
Enter Cate Blanchett, playing Sheba Hart, the new art teacher, fragile, naive, innocent and hopeful. Or is she? Barbara quickly ensconces herself into Sheba's life, becoming confidante and friend.
And then the plot thickens and assumes the intensity of a thriller as Sheba's life starts to fall apart, secretly abetted by Barbara. The tension does not let up until the very last frame and the viewer is never quite sure where this ride is going.
Sheba and Barbara are very alike at their cores, there is a fragile 'fatal attraction' theme running through their relationship, shadowed by Sheba's impossible affair with a fifteen year old boy which is in turn shadowed by her Down's Syndrome son who is of an age with her student, and again this is shadowed by her daughter's coming of age love troubles and overall the shadow of her own marriage to a much older man, who left his wife and children for her teenage self. I found all of these themes winding again and again throughout the film. The characters are fully rounded and indeed are also shown happy in the bosoms of their individual families but with a distance portrayed as if they are never quite sure of their places within them - always a distraction and secrets.
Barbara has her shadows too and they start to trickle through and become more vocalized and by others, as the stories unfold.
Enough said without spoilers. Bill Nighy, as Sheba's husband ably enhances the two astonishing performances of the female leads.
Movie making at its finest. This is being shown in two theatres in the same complex where I saw it and both were packed. It is very heartening to see a character driven and challenging movie being so popular.
10 out of 10. Superlative, down to the music by Philip Glass.
Without a doubt this year's Academy Awards will be a show to watch. You
may want to turn the spot lights to the "BEST ACTRESS IN LEADING ROLE"
nomination, because if you saw "The Queen" and loved Helen Mirren, you
ain't seen nothing' yet. Go watch "Notes on a Scandal" with Dame Judi
Dench at helm, and make sure to bring your casket with you, because you
may die of watching a movie that good.
Years ago I went to see a play in a theater. At some point in the show, the grandmother character had to sweep the floor and when she was done, she looked around to make sure nobody was looking and threw the dirt under the carpet. Everyone in the audience laughed. Later I learned that in theater "language" it also may mean that there are hidden secrets in that family.
The director Richard Eyre,who is known mostly for his theater/Broadway work, seems to build this amazing film based on that little theater shtick, and fills the film with the darkness under the carpet, puts us right there and makes us face that dirt. The characters of the young teacher played by Cate Blanchett and older teacher played by M. Judi Dench are impeccable and you can't take your eyes off them. I, personally, think that Dench's performance is one of the finest I have ever seen.
I wouldn't want to spoil the movie for you and give out details, however if you are looking for watching a powerful drama that will shock and thrill and move you with its message, execution and the story, please read no further. Stand up, get dressed and go to see "Notes on a Scandal" right now.
Judi Dench and Cate Blanchet both have played the fierce Queen Elizabeth I in their careers and here they fight for the crown in a royal match that is as entertaining as it is jarring. Two civilized women breaking into very uncivilized patterns of behavior. A highbrow story with a tabloid sensibility performed with truth and gusto. Bette Davis would have killed for Judi Dench's part at the time of Baby Jane and although there is nothing grotesque in the way Dame Judy presents us her monster, the monster herself is grotesque. She explains, in a witty and consistent voice over, what's in her mind. The center of her intentions become so appallingly clear to us that Cate Blanchet's slowness to catch up becomes exasperating. Maybe her suffocating domestic situation throws her into the arms of her absurdity. She seems a woman searching for validation without any real vocation. A teacher who doesn't believe she can teach, a mediocre wife a light weight mother. Judi Dench is relentlessly solid in her madness made of longing and fears. I left the theater with a desperate need for a double scotch on the rocks, just to take a strange taste off my mouth.
I saw this at a preview last night. It is a brilliant, absorbing little piece from Zoe Heller's novel about a teacher (Cate Blanchett, looking stunning) who has an affair with a 15 year old pupil and the effect this has on her relationship with a bitter, older teacher seeking selfishly for love (Judy Dench, looking 100). Great performances all round, with special mention to Bill Nighy in the Bill Nighy role. The script (Patrick Marber) is faithful to the book but enjoyable though the book was the film is actually - for a change - even better. Beautifully filmed in North London and Eastbourne (presumably the school scenes) this movie is definitely a must see.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Possible spoiler alert: but I don't know ow else to tell you without hinting at the core of the film (not a spoiler really) that this excellent moral dilemma is about to be the most talked about film of 2007. It, quite simply is literally sensational. It is in my opinion, the best, neatest, most brutally succinct script since maybe ALL ABOUT EVE or WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF. You hang on every word, delivered as one punch after another... not mean dialog or lacerating, like WOOLF, but aptly exactly quietly bullseye precision to describe anyone or any scene or any action. It should and could easily win the Oscar for Best script. I would honestly say it is the most withering observation of Britain, and it's inhabitants since PLENTY. Perhaps even what DAMAGE had hoped to achieve but did not. Devastating mature and immoral, and therefore a frightening acting experience for the viewer as only Nighy, Blanchett and Dench can deliver. I am at a loss to even describe how well realized this film is because no matter what I say the film is better written and better told. NOTES ON A SCANDAL is a film about predatory behavior in a grubby suburban British school... and who exactly is preying upon whom and how effective, immoral or successful each of the protagonists are is a pungent topic of many disturbing visuals that will seriously haunt you for many days. Where do they find a kid exactly the right age and type and can act and would match it with Dench and Blanchett... and actually be photographed doing what his character does? I want to see the interview with his parents. NOTES ON A SCANDAL is massive cinema. An absolutely heartbreaking colossal achievement in small, suburban torment. It is among the best films I have ever seen... especially PLENTY and EVE mentioned above. How you feel the day after you see this film will change in the weeks to follow. NOTES is up there with the most superb immoral and disturbing films ever made. Warning! do not be put off by the terrible trailer! It makes it look like a bitch slap fest and Fox marketing should be caned for this tawdry sell. Skip the crappy grubby sell they have chosen and just take my advice... and maybe see the film alone first. But wow! is it good.
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