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REVIEW: Notes on Notes on a Scandal


Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and screenwriter Patrick Marber all received Golden Globe nominations this morning for the psychological thriller Notes on a Scandal which opens later this month and which I was lucky enough to see last week.

The film is an adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal and tells the story of desperately lonely and nosy schoolteacher Barbara Covett (Dench), who lives alone with her cat but desperately yearns for the company of another woman. Her yearnings fall into that unclear place between simple companionship and physical intimacy, though the latter remains mostly unspoken.

When Sheba Hart (Blanchett) is hired as the new art teacher at her school, Barbara's curiosity is piqued. She makes it her business to know secrets about people, particularly her colleagues at the school. Covett immediately makes a deliberate push for Sheba's friendship, pulling her under her wing as a friend and confidante. It's a relationship that soon becomes one-sidedly obsessive and smothering, a fact that is not lost on Sheba's husband, who notices Sheba's increasingly frequent absences from their home in Islington.

Barbara dislikes the fact that her new companion must often go off with her family, so when she discovers that Sheba has become sexually involved with one of her cocky, alluring, underage male students (played pitch-perfect by newcomer Andrew Simpson), Barbara sees an opportunity to seize Sheba's friendship once and for all by using the dangerous affair as a bargaining chip for blackmail.

Dench gives a charged, riveting performance that is as strangely sympathetic as it is frightening. The film plays brilliantly with themes of isolation, desire, and secrecy as Barbara's insidious and sociopathic strategies to obtain the companionship of Sheba run parallel with Sheba's naive and dangerous romantic flings with the athletic, sexually insatiable boy. They're both out of control in their own way, and the threat of exposure is the gunpowder that waits to blow everything apart.

I haven't read the novel, but if it's as much a page-turner as Marber's beautifully-paced, insightful (and very funny at times) screenplay, there's a lot to be said for it.

My final note is on the Philip Glass score, which lends the film a dread and excitement reflective of the urgent performances turned in by Dench and Blanchett. Highly recommended.

Follow the jump for the full trailer.

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  1. Agreed that the score is important. Some people hate Glass, but he certainly works here. How 'bout that Bill Condon being shut out by the Globes? As Judi's character from Notes would say, "I think you'll find that was a mistake."

    Posted by: Matthew Rettenmund | Dec 14, 2006 1:34:54 PM

  2. I saw a screening as well. And although the performances were amazing, the film was griping, and the score incredible --- I am surprised from a gay man's point of view you didnt mention Judi's character is basically "another homosexual predator role" that we have seen since the beginning of motion pictures. Especially what we are left with after the final scene. In fact, this film could have been shot 50 years ago.

    And even though Cate Blanchett's character has an affair with a young student, we are supposed to be more sympathetic and understanding to her ...

    Posted by: jojo | Dec 14, 2006 1:42:54 PM

  3. Judi Dench is one of most brilliant actresses around, and Cate Blanchett is quite simply a goddess. Oscar nominations will follow...

    Posted by: Chesnut | Dec 14, 2006 3:45:43 PM

  4. Excellent point, JoJo. I do not know anything of this film or novel except the trailer I saw with my husband at the movies.

    I leaned over to him and said it looked like another mad lesbian on the loose film. Is this a remake of "Rebecca?"

    I guess when it's high brow, it's ok to portray gays as unstable predators.

    Posted by: mark m | Dec 14, 2006 6:21:28 PM

  5. Ever hear of a little overcooked bunny boiler from 1961 called "The Children's Hour'? Cos’ this turkey sounds like pure Lillian Hellman. You know, "I feel so dirty!!!"

    II don't know about you guys, but all my gay friends killed themselves laughing at the sight of Judy Dench chasing after Blanchett when the trailer played before Casino Royale.

    Run! The neurotic aged lesbian is coming for you! Run!

    Oy vey.

    Posted by: FASTLAD | Dec 14, 2006 11:09:17 PM

  6. Considering I was stalked by a gay guy once, I have no problem with a depiction of a gay person as a stalker. I get the implications of such a character, yadda yadda, but whatever. Judi and Cate are two of the best actresses we have. I'd watch them play cards.

    My big beef is with the marketing department. The trailer gives so much of the film away. I watched it at Apple a month or so ago and every major plot point, sans the ending, was spoiled.

    Posted by: Marco | Dec 14, 2006 11:44:08 PM

  7. I've read the novel and it's brilliant - laugh out loud funny and at the same time heartbreaking.

    Posted by: Ed | Dec 15, 2006 12:21:46 PM

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