January 29, 2007

Movie Review: Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal is a tightly wound thriller that wastes no time going about its business. It is a pleasant change of pace from the tendency of late to bloat films well past the two hour mark (not that it is a bad thing). Richard Eyre's film, based on the novel by Zoe Heller, sets out right away at setting the stage for the escalating tensions that are to come. It is a film that uses its economy of time to its advantage, keeping the plot moving ever forward with biting wit and tabloid juiciness. I was quickly drawn into the drama and was held at attention for the 90 minute runtime.

To read a plot description would give you slight insight to what the film is about, yet fail to tell you the whole story, or even who the story is truly about. It tells the story of Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a new schoolteacher who is spied while in a compromising position with one of her young students. The spy is Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), a woman who sees this as an opporunity to ingratiate herself to the new educator and gain a friend. What follows is the escalation of a friendship into a Fatal Attraction style relationship. The growing tension gathers steam until both sides reach their breaking points leading to dark secrets being revealed that will change the nature of their friendship forever.

The story of Notes on a Scandal seems like something that was ripped from the headlines, and that just may be where Zoe Heller gained her inspiration to write the novel in the first place. There are two things that make this stand out from other films of the type. First of these is what made the story different, the focus is partially drawn away from the the person having the affair and placed on a third party, hence the "notes" of the title. It is my understanding that the novel was written like a diary, and this third party used the daliance to there personal gain. The style is effectively translated to the screen as we are treated to voice overs from Dench's Barbara as she puts her biting comments to the page as she plots exactly how to make this work to her advantage, without exactly coming out and saying it. The second item of great import, applying to the film rather than the novel, are the performances of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Both of these women take hold of their characters and become them, completely involving the audience in the escalating drama.

Judi Dench puts on an acting clinic. I know that is a cliche, but it is hard to avoid when you see her performance. It is more than merely being good or believeable, she is Barbara. She makes it look so easy on the screen, like she isn't even trying, she just is, from the perfect inflections of voice, to her timing and facial expressions, whether to induce a chuckle or to shock you through a revelation, she, essentially, is Barbara. Cate Blanchett more than holds her own as the conflicted Sheba, a woman looking for more, but starting to late. nd lest we forget the Bill Nighy as the older man in Sheba'a life. He turns in a fine performance in his smaller role.

The film weaves a creepy spell. You cannot help but feel slightly disquieted as Sheba reveals the extent of her affair with 15 year old Steven Connolly, and then slightly more when you witness Steven's child's innocence with a dash of menace in the pursuit of his desires. That doens't even mention the grasp that he has over Sheba as she returns his infatuation in kind. Creepier still are the things that Barbara is doing, manipulating the situation as she follows her own infatuation with Sheba, and slowly reveals her disturbing level of neediness which far outstrips her loneliness.

Bottomline. This is more than mere Lifetime channel fare, surface subject matter elevated beyond the tabloid roots to something more. It digs into the fragile psyches of two women who are unhappy with the directions of their lives and the devastation that is left by their pursuit of happiness, as hollow as it may be. It is a frank and fascinating tale that haunt you as you leave the theater.

Highly Recommended.


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