(08/02/07) – Adapted by Patrick Marber (Closer) from the Booker-shortlisted novel by Zoe Heller, and directed by Richard Eyre, Notes on a Scandal has been highly acclaimed and has received four Oscar nominations. It has a top-drawer cast – Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy – music by Philip Glass and cinematography by Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, The Mission). All points to a high-quality drama, you must be thinking. Wel, think again. This film is as subtle as Armageddon.
Barbara Covett (Dench), history teacher at a north London comprehensive and self-confessed ‘battle-axe’, narrates events, much as she does in the novel. She befriends the attractive new art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett) and the battle-axe seems to acquire a new lease of life. But when she discovers that Sheba is having an affair with a fifteen-year-old pupil, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), her possessive streak is ignited. She tells Sheba that she won’t spill the beans as long as Sheba ends the affair. Sheba agrees but can’t help herself, and soon Barbara is using emotional blackmail to ensure that she is seeing as much of Sheba as possible. Although the nature of Barbara’s attraction to Sheba is only initially hinted at, references to a previous teacher who took out an injunction against her lead us to recognise her repressed lesbian feelings. With multiple scandals threatening to break, matters are bound to come to a head, and sure enough, they do.
This is wonderful material for a movie, an inherently dramatic situation and an opportunity to reveal big feelings and emotions through small observations of behaviour. For some reason, however, the filmmakers have preferred to deliver an over-heated melodrama, a real bunny-boiler of a movie, which, while great fun, is also incredibly frustrating. Richard Eyre directs as if it is an extended trailer for the real movie which might come out in a few months. The camera angles deployed tend to be swoon-inducing, not to heighten tension, emotion or moral dilemma but to give us a nose-to-the-glass view of the stock characters on display. Marber’s screenplay develops exactly as we expect it to, and we learn fairly quickly that we may as well simply jeer at the characters as if they are contestants in a north London gladiatorial ring. Classical composer Philip Glass’s heavy-going score adds to the absurd spectacle, though it is so insistent, so loud and omnipresent, it eventually comes to resemble nothing more than the traffic noise on the Archway Road. It is a textbook example of what film music shouldn’t do, and has none of the nuance or grandeur of his scores for, say, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters or Koyaanisqatsi.
The cast, meanwhile, does good work. Dench is superb, both at the teacher stuff (watch how she breaks up a fight between pupils) and as the lonely, bitter old woman who has had the same life for far too long. Like Meryl Streep, she turns in work so reliably excellent that she starts to seem superhuman. But I wonder to what extent Dench realised that the performance she’s giving this time would be encased in a film like this. She seems not to have questioned the ridiculous nature of so many scenes (the car/street confrontation, for example) or the character motivations which twist and turn like weather-vanes. It’s still an excellent performance, but it has shades of late-career Bette Davis. Blanchett is also fine, as the beautiful (she does beautiful very well), slightly irritating younger teacher whose self-centredness is offset by her Down’s Syndrome child. But she barely has time to convey the sadness or frustration that Sheba feels at her life. The affair with Steven works on paper and could work on film – but not in this film. As her betrayed husband, Bill Nighy, who lately has been mirroring Kevin Spacey in refusing to take material, even comic material, seriously, here gives a more restrained performance, and delivers the film’s best moment, a truly heartfelt, exhausted admission of unhappiness to Sheba just before he boots her out of the house and into the jaws of the waiting press. Andrew Simpson as the cocky, seductive pupil does exactly what he was cast to do, but the role is a cipher rather than a rounded character, and barely even has time to be even that. To paraphrase Barbara, the actors are bound by the movie they share.
Some reviews have mentioned that Notes on a Scandal seems to flinch at Barbara’s desire for Sheba; one critic has said that the movie suggests that it’s better to be a paedophile than a lesbian. I don’t think the film does object, really, to Barbara’s repressed lesbianism. It simply enjoys it, the way it enjoys Sheba’s transgression and the pandemonium that ensues. The title may suggest a wry, objective comment on morality and the press, but in actuality this movie is as gossipy and bloodthirsty as the anonymous scandalmongers it portrays.
Which is fine, to a point: it doesn’t pretend to be anything different – it’s just that if you are expecting a thought-provoking, subtle drama about cross-generational affairs and the gap between what our lives are and what we’d like them to be, you’ll probably be disappointed. If, however, you want to see Fatal Attraction meets Grange Hill, topped off with one hell of a bitch fight between two rollicking thesps, you’ve most certainly come to the right place.
Notes on a Scandal is playing in the UK now.