Upon first glance, the talent associated with Richard Eyre's adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel Notes on a Scandal would inspire utmost confidence in the interested viewer. On paper, the concept itself is tantalizing enough - here is a topical, controversial take on child sexual abuse within the educational system, brought to life by some of England's most valuable film personalities. Not only does the narrative etch the disturbing interplay between an irresponsible teacher and a manipulative student, but also adds another dimension in the form of an outside observer who uses the illicit affair to further complicate the already-murky moral waters of the drama. However, it is crushing to report that Notes on a Scandal is a bombastic, hysterically-pitched charade that is just as confused about its ethical stance as the flawed characters that traverse the screen. Veering wildly in tonality between art-house solemnity and sexual thriller-sleaziness, the film basically wishes to have its cake, eat it and slobber all over it too.
The first half hour, which establishes the main players and their surroundings, is agreeable enough. Patrick Marber's screenplay picks up on the snobbish musings of Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), an established teacher working at an inner-city school. Barbara's interior thoughts consist of tearing apart fellow co-workers for their social no-nos and other shortcomings, all of which are deliciously edgy. However, Barb's monologues grow increasingly needless considering Dench is so good at physically expressing the character's internalized sharp-edged criticisms and attacks. No doubt Barbara is a marvelous actor, which enables her to not only manipulate the politics of her workplace, but circumvent responsibility when matters deteriorate as well. This is all the more apparent once Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) enters the picture; as a beautiful, young educator intent on changing the world, Barbara sees the possibility of a close friendship... and possibly more. Barbara's desperate attempts to catch Sheba's attention are disturbing and fascinating as a psychological character study. The quick journey from workplace acknowledgment to close "friendship" is attention-grabbing, and the film succeeds well in drawing its audience into the character dynamics. However, once it comes to light that Sheba has been involved in a sexual relationship with a young male student, Barb's sense of having been abandoned and lied to is overpowering. This is also the point in which the film begins to unravel into sheer preposterousness at an alarming rate.
Make no mistake: this is Dame Judi Dench's show all the way, and the picture's only plus is watching the actress reinvent herself in a manner that we have not quite seen before. In the actor's hands, Barbara never becomes the repulsive predator the homophobic film so desperately attempts to paint her as, because Dame Judi is too smart and responsible an artist to let such a basic, uninteresting reading stand on its own. To be sure, Dench's spinster is a most fearsome villain, but the actor suggests enough in her performance - outside the realms of the text - to point towards a sad and devastating youth. This all is not to say that vilifying a gay character is politically incorrect or wholly unwarranted, but to frame the woman's queer sexuality - as opposed to her mental instability - as her most threatening trait is downright irresponsible. Too often Eyre's eye, accompanied by Philip Glass's neurotic, overblown score, lingers on Barbara as a spiteful lesbian intent on destroying the stable, healthy norms represented Sheba's family unit. One scene in particular, in which Barbara attempts to share a close physical connection with Sheba, is played out so cruelly at the former character's expense that it is difficult to even watch. Barbara is far from a sympathetic character, but perhaps it can be understood why her humiliation is so pronounced.
While there is something to be said for watching Dench shout abuses at Blanchett for the better part of an hour, the game ultimately grows tiresome and stale. The affair is exposed, Sheba is forced to leave the household by her husband (Bill Nighy, in an utterly thankless role), and she moves in with - guess who? - Barb. As Notes on a Scandal barrels onward, it offers many unsatisfying conclusions, the first of which is the advantageous presence of Barbara's diary, which maps out the master plan in its entirety (akin to how a James Bond villain reveals his dastardly evil plan toward the climax.) This allows Sheba to learn of how she has been consistently jerked around by Barb's machinations, but the quibble arises: any fool would have connected the pieces earlier. It is not so much Blanchett's performance that is the problem here (although this does count as one of the actor's least accomplished attempts), but the mere idea that Sheba has been completely blinded by Barb's many conspiracies. There are only so many contrivances a viewer can swallow, and it is unfathomable as to how all this would come as a surprise to Sheba. But of course, without this convenience, the film would have no reason for a climactic sequence in which Sheba gets to smack Barb around and throw the elderly woman against a glass bookcase. Nor would the young teacher have a reason to break down and attack reporters gathered outside Barb's home (already informed about the student affair) with guttural "I'm heeere!" martyr screams.
Spoilers herein... The final two moments, the most insulting in the entire film for my money, drive home what the filmmakers are most interested in: the inherent seediness and "otherness" of lesbian sexuality. The first embraces Sheba in a state of repentance, while the other depicts how Barb continues her predatory instincts on another oblivious victim. The reactions articulated by my fellow audience members (gasps, chuckles, and chattering just a few among them) simply confirms that Notes on a Scandal serves as a horror film for straight audiences. Once again, I'm not at all opposed to seeing gay characters portrayed as villains on-screen, but the effort here is sloppy and lazy, even with Dench's considerable capabilities. The result is a film that affirms the solidness of heteronormativity while questioning the foundations of anything "other" to that arrangement of sex, gender and family. It is on these grounds that I question the aims of Notes on a Scandal's filmmakers, and ask why they needed to resort to such panicky, easy conclusions when they could have dug much deeper.
Ultimately, Judi Dench is the sole reason why this film will have any staying power or library shelf life in the years to come. Her performance represents the only work by a main player that attempts to go further than what the director and screenwriter are concerned with. The film itself is much too terrified with the shocking, scandalous elements of homosexual deviousness (not heterosexual teacher-student affairs) and therefore only scratches the surface of a really fascinating current issue. C-