Saturday, March 10, 2007

Notes on a Disaster

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-


Anonymous said...

Though I don't agree with the contents of the review, I can see your points. Very well written.

Ali said...

Merci, Anon. That may be the highest compliment of all.

Emma said...

I didn't care too much for this film, even though I loved the book. and I thought Blancett overacted horribly.

adam k. said...

Yeah, the book was awesome. I'm glad I read it first. Shame that the film seems so messy and muddled. I still have yet to see it.

Sheba's revelation at the end, and her lack of realization earlier, made total sense in the book. I didn't see why she should've known earlier. Especially since she's so obnoxiously selfish and oblivious to Barbara's feelings, which is what spurred Barb to fuck her up in the first place.

jesse said...

Hmmm... I see what you're saying, but it didn't strike me that way, for whatever reason. Curious, I actually came to the exact opposite reading--that the film constantly subverts the audience expectations of high camp, and that Barb comes off as a wholly pathetic character that's actually somewhat sympathetic.

I'm also not quite sure what to make of the comment that Barb is trying to destroy the "healthy norms" of Sheba's life, especially considering that not only was she engaging in pedophilic activities, but is also half of an obviously unhappy marriage.

And that brings me to another point I seem to disagree with most reviewers (at least that I've come across)--that this is a weak performance from Blanchett, at least judging from her own high standards. Like many others, my first reaction was "any actress could have done that," but upon some reflection I had to ask myself "could any actress have done that?" And I honestly don't think so--Sheba should be the villian of this piece, and I feel the reason why she's not has more to do with Blanchett's acting than the character as written. I honestly think this could be Blanchett's most subtle performance that I've yet seen, and more than deserving an Oscar nomination.

But if anything, this is probably the best review I've ever read from you. Great stuff, though I obviously disagree on most counts.

JavierAG said...

Exactly my feelings, Ali, and beautifully put, except I'd go a step further and add the film *looks* ugly, too. It's basically one of those 'dirty old lady has a secret' themes, 'now watch her crumble'. I wouldn't mind it so much if it didn't take its pseudo-psychology so seriously. Laughable film, except it's really not funny and Patrick Marber and Philip Glass should by all means die, promptly.

Jose said...

Dench is absolutely brilliant in this film, so I agree on that.
But for me the biggest disappointment didn't come in the shape of the mishandled sexual politics (I know by now to expect better than to see "human" gay characters in films, they're all clichés).
But what I was expecting was some camp! I mean, the trailer was filled with the promise of a huge catfight between Blanchett and Dench (so was the infamous "Here I Am!!!!" which felt like it was written for Faye Dunaway playing Joan Crawford).
I know I don't sound like the smartest cookie in the jar asking for this, but when the film delivered such a moralizing ending (the "villain" gets loneliness and some sort of mythological cyclical punishment while the criminal gets back her family) I wanted at least to be more entertained.

Ali said...

It's been quite illuminating to read the range of reactions to this clearly divisive film.

Emma - I would agree on Blanchett only during the climax scene. Otherwise, she was a little too vague for me.

Adam - I never finished the book, unfortunately (blame school for controlling my life.) I'm glad the Heller novel gives a clearer arc to Sheba than Marber's screenplay does. I'll have to pick it up again this summer, if only to compare.

Jesse - An interesting reading of the film's tone, and makes me realize that subjectivity is key here. For me, the tone was not so much subversive as it was divided, or even confused.

As for "healthy norms", I wasn't referring to her life as you say, but her family arrangement specifically. And I don't think you could make the case that it was was an obviously unhappy marriage. I would argue that it lacked excitement; Sheba even acknowledges that she gets great joy out of her roles as a mother and wife. It's that they in and of themselves don't "give [her] meaning."

I don't know re: Blanchett. Maybe I'll have to look a little bit closer on a second viewing. I appreciated her subtle reading of the character, but the screenplay just can't convince me that Sheba would not have seen this betrayal coming miles away. Blanchett is talented at many things, but she cannot really play someone that is this stupid and blind. Nathaniel has already covered this extensively in his great review.

Javier - Death, I think, is a little harsh of a punishment (since Eyre's Iris certainly has its strengths, and Glass is pretty good otherwise ;) But I understand your frustrations. It should have just acknowledged itself as deliciously dark camp and played that up.

Jose - My feelings exactly. It wasn't fun. And the film's handling of sexuality is so poorly done that it's hard to take pleasure in the scenes that do veer into this territory. Nicely put.

Scott said...

Where are you??

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