Notes on a Scandal (2006)
UK / English
"One Woman's Mistake Is Another's Opportunity... "A pottery teacher (Blanchett) enters into an affair with one of her students, causing upheaval in her personal and professional lives.
"Notes On a Scandal": Judi Dench as Bloodsucking Fiend.
A little-known fact about Araneae Arachidna, uncommonly known as the
common spider: Only their nimble poise keeps them from tumbling into
their webs. The slightest slip, the merest topple, and they'd be in as
wretched a condition as the bloodless husks that litter their tacky
lairs. In "Notes On a Scandal," (which enjoyed a limited release on
Dec. 25), this delicate mean is most graphically illustrated in London
schoolmarm, Barbara Covett (note the last name), whose rule in the
classroom is adamantine, but whose grasp of words like "friend,"
"secret" and "love affair" are as tenuous as spider silk.
Dame Judi Dench's Covett is a history teacher in a British school that
makes the one in "Saint Clara" look like an accounting firm made over
by the Body Snatchers. Vicious football hooligans and wanton
almost-women abound, "the future plumbers and shop clerks," in Covett's
acid baroque. The teachers crouch in the gymnatorium, trading term
reports, like beleaguered generals in the trenches. Covett's is the
most succinct: Her classes are "below the National Average, but above
the level of catastrophe. Recommendation: No change necessary." But no
matter how we try to keep things status quo, change has a way of
sluicing in through the cracks. At the start of the Fall term, change
waltzes into Dench's life in the liquid form of new art teacher, Sheba
Hart (Cate Blanchett), who is as lovely as an Elf and her namesake
together, but as free as a Hobbit, particularly about the loins, which
she can't seem to stop airing out around a treacherously-charming
15-year-old, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), who is determined to
pluck this Bohemian rose by means artful and sincere.
When Covett catches a sensuous eyeful of the twosome during a Christmas
pageant, this starchy spider sees an opportunity to cinch her snare
shut. She takes Hart into her confidence, promising not to tell for the
sake of Hart, Connolly and the school (not to mention Covett's icy
groin). Soon Covett is insinuating herself into the family life of her
supple obsession, appearing at every lunch, outing (and inning), like
some incestuous mother-in-law. Hart's family consists of a drolly
self-amused husband (Bill Nighy), a teenage melancholic daughter (Juno
Temple) and a son who suffers from Down's Syndrome (Max Lewis), whom
Covett regards as a flimsy gauntlet between her heart and Hart.
When she's not haunting the Harts' steps, like an insufferably-haughty
shadow, Covett can be found out at her meticulously-clutter-free abode,
adorning her diary with gold stars and musing about everything from
lasagna, to the "pubescent proles," to her only true friend in the
world: her dying cat, an uncanny doppelganger of Mrs. Norris, Filch's
feline in the Harry Potter movies.
Of course, everything falls apart spectacularly in the third act, with
everyone's gory doings blared across every tube and telly from Bath to
Birmingham. But what's even more amazing is the way everything falls
back together in the end. There are the wounds that cleave, yes, and
those which sew us back more strongly than ever. These are the darling
themes of director Richard Eyre, whose previous pairing with Dench was
the Alzheimer's weeper, "Iris". Eyre is a fellow who believes---truly
believes---in the all-conquering power of love, not as a Disneyfied
platitude, but as an attracting force, binding beyond all reason, even
when every particle of logic screams, "Resist!" Love is a jigsaw
puzzle. Smash it to bits, the pieces will snap themselves back into
place snugger than ever.
"I can't imagine Iris without me, just as I can't imagine myself
without Iris!" says John Bayley of his dear heart, and here similar
sentiments apply. Even Covett, at the end, finds herself returning to
her first love: herself, her solitude in her aloof tower, hurling down
snide remarks, like Molotov cocktails. For Eyre, love is a pliant
stone; bendable, yes; breakable---never! One of the great charms of
"Notes On a Scandal," as with "Iris," is seeing a supremely royal woman
behave like an utter slob. In "Iris," we watched the wits of one of the
great literary showwomen of our time rust and rot, but oh-so tenderly.
Here, we have Dench muttering such crude asides as: "Lasagna doesn't
agree with my bowels; I shall eat as little as possible." Another
double take-inducing moment has Dench "stroking" Blanchett's arm in
ways most titillative. "Did they do this at your other school?" she
asks without a wink of shame. The preview crowd I saw this with
couldn't stop snorting with disbelief every time Dench opened her
mouth, often laughing before she'd even finished her sentences.
Stripping the iron mail away from our social betters, revealing their
pink backsides---this is where Eyre is at his best. We see Dench not in
silk-strewn palaces, but in settings both earthy and beige---in simple
windbreakers and cardigans. Scenes of tension are shot with jittery
hand-held cameras, stifling intimacy, and every window pane bears a
film of damp moulder.
These bleak backdrops have a way of humanizing Dench, bringing her down
to the contradictions coursing under the crust of the mundane. Dench's
Covett has a stalker's knack of deconstructing the simplest
gestures---a hair drifting onto her lap, the brushing of a hand---as
thunderclaps of loving proclamation. When faced with the ugly
contraries real humans are composed of, Covett regards them as base
treacheries, then tosses people away, like chipped porcelain. She
possesses the kind of idealism only a rapist enjoys. Anyone who falls
short is cut off, like a gangrenous limb. But witnessing this, we come
to realize Covett is her own worst victim. She's doomed to live in a
world which falls forever short of her expectations. In other words,
she's human. We pity her.
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