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Notes on a Scandal

Art House & International movie directed by Richard Eyre

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Nice performances from a drama that doesn't ring true

  • Feb 4, 2007
Notes on a Scandal is a decently scripted, nicely filmed melodrama, lifted by a great performance from Judi Dench, who manages her character's gentle arc from lonely old battleaxe to psychotic nutcase well - though it remained, over the whole course of the film, too easy to empathise with Barbara: when she should have been approaching skin-crawling territory: the literate and dryly delivered bon mots of Barbara's diary, and her gentle allusions to Virginia Woolf, didn't wane and she remained the hero rather than the anti-hero. Perhaps she was intended to be, and I missed the point. But someone certainly did - when it should have been chiming, too frequently Notes on a Scandal clanged.

Chief culprit was the screenplay. I've not read Zoe Heller's book, but I found Cate Blanchett's character, Bathsheba, was altogether troublesome. For one thing, the traditional archetype requires some personal imbalance that sets a character off on the plot revealed by the story. Something needs to be missing, or off-key, in the character's day-to-day life. But with Bathsheba, nothing is: She has a loving (older) husband with whom she seems to share a great relationship with her children, including an apparently happy, affectionate and non-demanding boy with Down's syndrome. As if to demonstrate this (and what other point would such a contrivance have?) the whole family dances cheerily and un-self-consciously after a first Sunday lunch with Barbara.

Therefore there is no obvious reason for Bathsheba to embark on her fateful voyage - a well-adjusted, happy wife and mother just spontaneously implodes.

Later, Sheba complains of the pressures of having raised a handicapped son for a decade, but we never *see* any such difficulty (indeed, Sheba's husband seems to be his primary care-giver), and it does not credibly explain why she would suddenly take a job as an inner-city comprehensive art teacher (not exactly a palliative for difficult child-rearing!) nor how adultery by means of statutory rape, apparently within weeks of commencing the job, would make things any better.

If it is difficult to credit her motivation for that, it's difficult to buy anything else about her character, and as the movie rolled on the less I was engaged by Cate Blanchett's striking looks and uncanny ability to look vulnerable but alluring at the same time, and the more I felt Bathsheba was just an irrational bimbo who got what was coming to her.

But then the problem becomes: what is this film trying to achieve? What is it trying to say? Barbara battles on: she grows ever more spooky the more we learn about her, but ultimately she undergoes no permanent change: she has learned nothing, suffered nothing, and we leave her exactly as we found her, sitting on her park bench, Hannibal Lecter-like, as if she were sitting down to have her next old friend for dinner.

Once again, Bill Nighy (who appears to have secured some sort of monopoly on playing irascible old buzzards in British Cinema) holds the fort but despite a good effort fails to persuade in a straight role, not helped by the lack of coherence in his part's characterisation. Being confused as to why Bathsheba stuffed everything up in the first place, he becomes confused as to what to do with her afterwards, and pretty much capitulates and lets her do what she likes.

Certainly an intriguing night out, but I found Notes on a Scandal failed to clear any of my credibility hurdles.

Olly Buxton

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More Notes on a Scandal reviews
review by . March 06, 2010
Pros: Dench and Blanchett ... outstanding     Cons: none for me     The Bottom Line:   "Betrayal, Betrayal,  Will this world make better sense?  Once you mean nothing to me..."  ~The Black Maria     I absolutely love it when they give you the unexpected and make it seem so expected. By the time Notes On A Scandal finished you almost forgot what the initial scandal was about because it had turned into …
review by . December 15, 2008
Lonely high school teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench)'s only confidant is her diary, in which she records her intimate thoughts and frequent delusions of happiness. Young Sheba (Cate Blanchett) joins the faculty and Barbara's fascination with her soon turns to obsession. When she discovers Sheba's affair with a student, Barbara agrees to keep the secret, but her unreasonable demands of Sheba's time and loyalty lead to disaster.     What a movie! It is absolutely wonderful. Both …
review by . February 06, 2008
Barbara is one of those gargoyles of a teacher we all had in junior high. Her students regard her with apprehension, but few who know her know what she really is. Barbara's a predator. A master of manipulation, her victims remain trustfully unaware of the danger that lurks until it's way too late. Notes on a Scandal is populated by users. Sure, they can differentiate right from wrong, but when it comes down to something they want, they're consciences are very flexible. But Barbara alone possesses …
review by . November 25, 2007
Pros: Dench's and Blanchett's performances; direction.     Cons: Predictable at times.     The Bottom Line: Probably one of the best films you haven¬ít seen in quite some time.     Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. Despite our tendency toward the wholesale slaughter of our fellows from time-to-time, we humans are social creatures. Even I, an admitted introvert, at times suffered from bouts of loneliness …
review by . November 02, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Based on the book by Zoe Heller, NOTES ON A SCANDAL is a most intriguing drama-thriller starring Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench in two of their most gutsy and honest performances.    Public school history teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is a self-sufficient loner, preferring to keep to herself, recording all her thoughts and poisonous opinions about her colleagues in various diaries. When new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) arrives on the scene, Barbara writes …
review by . May 14, 2007
Food, water, clothing and shelter are the things human beings need to physically survive. But our highly evolved brains require something else as well: connection. We seek it through friends, lovers, music, pets, soap opera characters and in certain desperate situations probably soccer balls. Without it, we will surely go mad. Mad like the aptly named Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who, in turns her attention to a new co-worker in her desperate, endless quest to... connect.     Both …
review by . April 20, 2007
NOTES ON A SCANDAL invites the audience to read the diary of a very lonely, crusty, frumpy, acerbic history teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) through the voice-over narrative throughout this challenging, harsh, but very brave cinematic version on the novel 'What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal' by Zoe Heller, brilliantly adapted for the screen by Patrick Marber. It is a success on every level - story, direction, cinematography, and especially acting.    Barbara Covett …
review by . April 19, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Acting, story, music, how the mood is set and maintained      Cons: None      The Bottom Line: This is a type of Lolita with genders reversed and blackmail thrown in for extra tension. Not a 'fun' movie, but certainly a brilliant one.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot.      I must admit to a minor literary sin; I have never read Lolita. I know from having …
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Olly Buxton ()
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Gold stars to all for this taut psychological thriller based on Zoe Heller's novel that that gets more insidiously twisted as it unfolds. Oscar-nominated for her chilling performance, Dame Judi Dench gives a master class as schoolteacher Barbara Covett, a frumpy, friendless, and flinty spinster who lives with her cat. A formidable presence, Barbara is standoffish with colleagues and not one for students to trifle with (not that they'd dare). Cate Blanchett, also an Oscar nominee and winner of several critics society awards for her impassioned performance, costars as Sheba Hart, the new, overwhelmed art teacher who first becomes enthrall to Barbara after she steps in to help Sheba discipline unruly students. Barbara cultivates a friendship, and insinuates herself into Sheba's chaotic life, which includes her older husband (Bill Nighy), teenage daughter, and a son with Down's syndrome. Then, Barbara catches the reckless Sheba in a compromising position with a 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson). Seizing her opportunity, the calculating Barbara does not turn her in. Rather, she wants to "help" her. "She's the one I've been waiting for," she writes in the journals she meticulously keeps, and which provide, in voiceover, her corrosive commentary. This all sounds very Fatal Attraction, but no boiling rabbits, please; we're British. Philip Glass's Oscar-nominated score accentuates the growing menace. Though there is little in ...

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