Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

Dame Judi Dench is famous for never watching her own performances on film (with the exception of the James Bond franchise, in which in recent years she has played spy boss M). She claims she dislikes seeing herself on the big screen, and with Notes On a Scandal, I can certainly understand why. Her character is not flattered in any way by the camera – she is all wrinkled skin, thinning hair and narrow eyes. But it’s a shame Dame Judi can’t appreciate what the rest of us do – her magnificent ability to morph into a character and give a performance rich in emotion, depth and sheer bravura.

Dench plays Barbara, a lonely 60-something teacher at an inner-London school. She despises her students, loathes her fellow tutors and writes obsessively about the minute goings-on in her life in her diary. She also has a predilection for picking young females to be her “special friends”, and in this case, it’s fragile art teacher Sheba (Cate Blancett) who catches her eye. Sheba has an imperfect but loving home life, but risks it all when she embarks on an affair with 15-year-old pupil Stephen (Andrew Simpson). Witnessing an illicit encounter, Barbara is initially shocked by Sheba’s behaviour, but soon realises she could twist the situation to her advantage, in order to bind Sheba to her forever.

Notes on a Scandal is an examination of two women who could both be labelled sexual predators, albeit very different types. Dench is a powerhouse as the manipulative Barbara, who has become so embittered by years of desperate solitude that she is incapable of forming natural relationships, relying instead upon lies and manipulations. Watching Barbara gradually encroach on Sheba’s home life in an attempt to isolate her from family members is like watching a lion stalking a confused baby gazelle. However, unlike serial killer-type films, Barbara never loses the essence of humanity, and it’s a tribute to Dench that she can play such a despicable character but keep in touch with what it’s like for society’s outsiders: those left without hope and without love.

Blanchett - as always - gives a wonderful performance as Sheba, the free spirit mother-of-two who embarks on a torrid fling with a student out of a longing to feel young and unburdened by family (her mother is disparaging of her abilities, her husband is 20 years older than her, and their son has Down’s Syndrome). She knows it’s wrong, but persists, helped along by the eagerness of the teenager involved (good work by newcomer Simpson). The rest of the supporting cast is strong, particularly Bill Nighy as Sheba’s distant but loving husband. It’s hard to feel sympathetic for her, considering she brings the drama on herself, but Blanchett plays Sheba’s flaws honestly.

There’s a couple of script problems, mostly to do with the timeline of events, and the quick way Sheba’s family turns on Barbara after laughing with her over lunch just a few scenes earlier. The soundtrack by Philip Glass lifts the tragedy of these everyday lives to an epic scale, though truth be told it’s often distracting and far too loud. It over-compensates for action when in fact silence may have been better. The final scene is appropriate, if somewhat clichéd.

Dench is truly outstanding in this film, and certainly deserves an Oscar, even though she’s likely to be pipped on the night by rival knight Dame Helen Mirren (in The Queen). She’s ably supported here by Blanchett, who unfortunately will be overlooked as the Best Supporting gong will undoubtedly go to popular newcomer Jennifer Hudson for her breakthrough role in Dreamgirls. This is not a film for children, but it is a superb adult drama, that examines on a micro-scale what happens to people who long so much for something to fill the gap in their lonely lives, but have lost any real sense of connection to people who might help them in their quest.

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