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Notes on a Scandal

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 12/28/06 01:59:50

"Tell Me How You Can Say ‘In July’ And I’ll Go Down On You"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Is the world ready for Judi Dench as a vengeful lesbian? We’ll get back to that. Let me ask a question to the guys out there. As your hormones were going nuts and a girl’s touch suddenly went from cootie infestation to cooter curious, can you remember having a crush on one of your teachers? Or did they all look like Judi Dench? Knowing the media’s partiality to jumping on the tawdry bandwagon, it’s always headline news when some hot young geography teacher misreads the planned field trip to Busch Gardens. Scandalous for some. Fantasy come true for others. Law & Order: Creamy Vaginal Unit has no doubt done two or three “ripped from the headlines” episodes while the flipside on Dateline NBC entraps the suburban predators flipping the sexes on the story. Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal is caught between its own worlds, lurking out there on scratch paper desperately designing to make a point about May/December relationships but failing to be anything more than a lightweight look at obsession, blackmail and what precisely our kids should be learning in school.

Barbara Covett (Dench), a name that screams Commandment-type trouble, is a teacher at an average British prep school. She considers herself superior to her co-workers, frequently condescending their behavior in the nightly diary she writes with the prose of a literary novelist. When the young and beautiful Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) comes to teach at St. George’s, Barbara sees herself striking up an instant friendship with her before they’ve ever been introduced. After controlling a fight that develops in Sheba’s class, begun by Steven (Andrew Simpson) defending her honor, Barbara eventually gets a dinner invite where she meets her much older husband (Bill Nighy) and her two children including a son with Down’s Syndrome, whom she insults in voiceover.

Barbara couldn’t be happier about her new friendship so it comes to some consternation when she finds Sheba personally thanking her student by going down on the 15 year-old. She confronts Sheba, threatening to turn her in, which leads to a grandiose confession detailing how the relationship began and a promise to end it immediately. Barbara, seeing a larger opportunity to exploit, grants her new friend immunity hoping that she’ll be so indebted to her that she’ll succumb to just about anything.

Notes on a Scandal doesn’t exploit the opportunity to go into aggrieved stalker mode though. Barbara’s subsequent actions are no less subtle, but even though a small garden shovel is hinted at for further use it never crosses into that territory. Does that make the adaptation of Zoe Heller’s novel a more literate Single White Female then? Not so much. Barbara talks a great game, throwing out 75-cent words in the patronizing authority that we’ve come to expect from a Dench performance, but her grand master plan to find kinship is not the stuff of a master strategist. Her coup de grace of trying to get Sheba to comfort her over her dying pussy(cat) while she’s en route to her son’s play reads no differently than the ridiculous requests Kramer made to Seinfeld after giving him his blood.

No matter how far we read into the Freudian metaphors and biblical references (Bathsheba committed adultery with King David), on the surface Notes on a Scandal is nothing more than a pale melodrama that never tackles the variety of social themes which should make it a powder-keg for the time. It never brings up the first bit of double standard inquiry anyone has when it’s a younger male and older woman. Age-extensive relationships are at the heart of Scandal with Sheba’s husband much older when he married her and the running hypocrisy of Barbara’s infatuations with far younger women. The film makes no case or justification for any of it, barely treating it as irony and rather a glaring coincidence. And what of Sheba’s rebellious punk past; a thrown about character trait of youth complete with thick eyeliner from her slutty, big-haired 80’s past that Blanchett gets to relive in maybe the most embarrassing moment in her career, screaming wildly at a gathering of performers as if it were a mosh pit.

In a film that is so low-key most of the way, moments like these seem to be playing to (or keeping up) with Philip Glass’ “go to 11” crescendo-laden score and Blanchett is not the only one to scream her way over it. Bill Nighy gets a pair of scenes, one in justified anger that sees him spitting up more than Paris Hilton on the Chew Flu and the other in a wildly misplaced rant during the pussy mourning that are jolting not for their dramatic tension but for the disconnection it has with the absentee reels we assumed weren’t projected. “What is this hold she has over you,” Nighy screams in an assumptive leap only to be sharing his home with Barbara again in his next scene.

Dench doesn’t do anything here we haven’t seen from her before – except maybe take a bath. The literary pretentiousness of her diary leads us into a state of consciousness that the participants are interested in raising the Fatal Attraction clichés to a more refined level. Doesn’t stop them from using the same “you’ve got something on your face” bit of polite flirtation – TWICE! At a mere 88 minutes, even Cliff wouldn’t be able to pen a worthwhile study guide for these Notes. His chapter on Act III would be scarcer than the leaflet on Famous Jewish Sports Legends and he would have a hard time selling what a scandal it all is as Eyre films the affair scenes with a less-than-tawdry, PG-13 sensibility that relies on us to keep remembering the ages instead of creating a film specifically for it.

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