**/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson
screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on the novel by Zoë Heller
directed by Richard Eyre
by Walter Chaw When Judi Dench's brittle enunciation breathes life into the prologue of Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal, there's a hope, however fleeting, that the film will deserve the performance. Her tweedy, support-hosed teacher Barbara Covett is set up as a distaff Richard III, looking to subvert the beautifuls acting as the royals in her school's social strata--the newest member of which, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), attracts the greatest amount of envy and desire. The characters' names are embarrassing (why not call them "Barbara Lust" and "Sheba Love"?), and it's not long before the picture follows suit, becoming as obvious and stillborn as its first half hour is scabrous and dangerous. Adapted from the Zoë Heller novel, it reminds of screenwriter Patrick Marber's Closer and how Mike Nichols's film adaptation similarly suffered from a gradual slackening of shock with the realization that its umbrella of misanthropy doesn't cast a dark shadow on all of us so much as it provides a vicarious thrill, like watching a cockfight, say, or a mantis eating its mate: though foul, its pungency is isolatable.
There's fascination here, but not much nasty, lingering insight, turning the experience of the film into something closer to spectacle. Notes on a Scandal contorts so awkwardly to paint its players as merely different shades of insufferable and pathetic that its misanthropy loses its edge. I don't know that Marber's wrong about the vile primate state of man, but I do know that the revelation--we're vile primates--isn't instructive in its pornographic exploitation. (I wonder if it doesn't seem like a better, more daring movie just because the perception is that the British wear their knickers tightly.) Notes on a Scandal doesn't have conflict but rather a series of damnable events illustrating nothing particularly shocking in a world that's already lapped it in terms of atrocity and subterfuge. The speed with which the story of a 53-year-old man breaking into Colorado's Platte Canyon High School to sexually assault six girls before killing one (and then himself) disappeared from the headlines speaks volumes about first the dustiness of Notes on a Scandal, then how the trappings of "class" in this awards-season prestige piece verges itself on the precipice of appalling. The only ones who don't agree are also the only ones interested in the film for anything beyond the weary laying of odds on the Oscar race.
Marber seems invested in fairytales with neither morals nor heroes. The evil queen of the ruined kingdom is Covett, her eunuch coterie composed of various forms of middle-aged teachers crippled by their station. Free-spirit princess Sheba, married to an older man (Bill Nighy) and mother to two children, one of them disabled, earns her stalker while searching for her own lost youth in the arms of one of her young prep-school Prince Charmings (Andrew Simpson). As the film takes us into Barbara's confidence by peeks into her diaries ("I"s dotted with hearts) and by her withering voiceover, we're to assume her point-of-view, but doing so casts the film's relationships with her travel-worn worldview. Dench unleashed is a marvel, the perfect counterpoint to Blanchett's effervescence, yet both are shoehorned into the restricting mold of Eyre's stuffy direction that handily neuters any audience indictment. It occurs to me that this film was done better by Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game. Originally published: December 25, 2006.
by Bill Chambers Notes on a Scandal arrives on DVD in an impeccable transfer from Fox. Chris Menges's typically radiant cinematography is preserved in a 1.82:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that renders a soft, naturalistic palette with grace. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio meanwhile squeezes all the juice it can out of the comparatively utilitarian soundmix. On another track, director Richard Eyre contributes an uneven but above-average commentary that makes up for its lapses into narration with engaging rhetoric. (He notes, for instance, the central paradox in telling the movie from the Judi Dench character's near-literal point-of-view, which meant more--not fewer--close-ups of Dench.) I kind of disagree with him that showing Barbara's and Sheba's respective fates sequentially wouldn't have been as effective as cross-cutting them is, but then Eyre is a stage director by trade and the cinema's ability to tell a story in a non-linear fashion probably still strikes him as novel.
The remaining extras are more or less rubbish, the least egregious of them being Trailer Park's "Notes on a Scandal: The Story of Two Obsessions" (12 mins.)--though here, as in the remaining featurettes, "loneliness" is the watchword, as if they're legitimately afraid you'll judge the characters without taking into account the pathos of their circumstances. Source novelist Zoë Heller and screenwriter Patrick Marber deliver the best shoptalk, with the former revealing that Cate Blanchett was precisely how she pictured Sheba. "Notes on a Scandal: Behind the Scenes" (5 mins.) is like the previous piece for dummies, while "In Character with: Cate Blanchett" (2 mins.) sees Blanchett speculating on the psychology of infidelity before hastily adding that she's "not speaking from experience." Eight "webisodes"--"Judi and Cate - Behind the Scandal," "The Screenplay," "Judi Dench," "Cate Blanchett," "Casting," "Characters," "On Set," "Love Scenes"--totalling 14 minutes are hollow quasi-advertisements that barely touch on their titular designations and sport shoddy audio and video to boot. Notes on a Scandal's trailer rounds out the disc; trailers for The Last King of Scotland and The History Boys cue up on startup. Originally published: April 16, 2007.