"Notes on a Scandal" | From one moral misstep, a dark pas de deux
Seattle Times movie critic
Zoë Heller's novel "Notes on a Scandal" (published in the United States in 2003 under the title "What Was She Thinking?") pulls off a marvelous rabbit-from-a-hat trick: What appears to be its main plot turns out not to be the real story at all. The "scandal" of the title is an affair, between a British secondary-school teacher named Sheba Hart and her teenage student, Steven. But the story, narrated by fellow teacher Barbara Covett, is gradually revealed to be less about Sheba and more about Barbara, a desperately lonely woman who schemes to control Sheba's life. The "notes" — Barbara's diary — reveal a highly biased view of what really happened; Barbara's version of the tale wrings reality like a dishcloth, squeezing it of all but what she wants us to know.
The book now comes to the screen with a dream cast and a changed tone: Where Heller engaged in subtle, wicked satire, director Richard Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber ("Closer") lean more toward melodrama and pathos. And, surprisingly, it works; like a mirror image of the book, it's a different view of the same picture. There are moments when the screen "Notes on a Scandal" approaches grand opera, with Philip Glass' beautifully persistent score twisting around the cast like vines, and the two lead actors letting emotions pour out of them, larger than life and yet lifelike.
Judi Dench, as Barbara, has pulled her face into sharp lines; this is a bitter, unhappy woman, waiting endlessly for something other than what she calls "the drip-drip, long-haul, no-end-in-sight loneliness" of her days. Everything this woman does has an edge: When she smokes, her cigarette seems like a weapon; when she shops, she grabs decisively, as if the item might jump away. When the lovely Sheba (Cate Blanchett) appears at the school as a new faculty member, Barbara is suspicious of her, describing her dismissively as "a fey person." (Dench stretches out the word "fey" like an elastic band; you fear it might snap.) But her feelings soon change, and she comes to love Sheba in a strange, possessive way; it's sexual (more overtly than the book), and yet more than that.
In less skilled hands, Barbara could be a villain, but Dench finds a vulnerability within her that's at times unbearably sad; she is, it seems, love's victim. As she becomes caught up in Sheba's affair with Steven (Andrew Simpson), her scheming, obsessive behavior seems almost unintentional — the result of forces beyond her control. Meanwhile, Blanchett's airy Sheba justifies her own behavior as something she deserves, something wicked yet acceptable, "like having another drink when you know you shouldn't." The women circle each other — Barbara focused like a hawk, Sheba distracted and oblivious — in an increasingly dark dance. Eventually, though, the piper must be paid.
Eyre has paid careful attention to visual detail. The differences in the two women's social class are depicted vividly: Barbara's dark apartment is below its modest street; the more affluent Sheba's row house rises grandly above its sidewalk. Sheba's comfortable home has an agreeable, soft messiness to it; Barbara's flat is painful in its tidiness, with a sadly perky cat-shaped key holder hanging on the wall. Ultimately, though, "Notes on a Scandal" emerges as a remarkable character study: difficult to watch, impossible to look away.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published January 5, was corrected January 7. The book by Zo Heller on which the movie "Notes from a Scandal" is based was a nominee for the Booker Prize in 2003. It did not win the award, as was mistakenly reported in a previous version of this review.
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