by JAMES BRIGHAM
For whatever reason, I was reluctant to see Notes on a Scandal when it was showing in theatres; I had to be cajoled into buying a ticket by several of my film club friends. In retrospect, my unwillingness was borne of foolish stereotyping of the British film industry. All too often, I fall into the trap of imagining such exports as being finely acted but laborious – esoteric art house dramas that require me to be in the proper intellectual mood. Then I never see the finished product because I’m worried that my attention span will prove inadequate. If Notes on a Scandal is indicative of the majority of films currently coming out of the U.K., then I’m going to have to sign up for Netflix just to make up for lost time. And if it’s atypical, then more moviemakers from that region need to take note, no pun intended.
Notes on a Scandal is an in-depth character study held up by two incredible actresses: Dame Judi Dench (who needs to upgraded to Countess Dench after putting on this performance) and Cate Blanchett. As teachers Barbara and Sheba, respectively, they play a wonderfully complex game of deception set against the backdrops of the London school system and their private home lives. While the movie’s primarily about the danger of student / teacher affairs, the story touches upon the many scandalous layers that connect all the characters existing between these two principal educators.
Dench’s Barbara is a battle-hardened veteran of the system, tough and bitter. Her manipulative, caustic nature is revealed via a series of effective, no-punches-pulled voiceovers that ultimately call into question the high rankings given to some of cinema’s most sinister villains. Even Hannibal Lecter would have to say “Damn, girl. Respect.”
In contrast, Blanchett’s Sheba is quiet, optimistic, and dangerously naïve. It’s a testimony to Blanchett’s skills as an actress that she can stand strong against the quiet fury of Dench’s performance and not be lost. In fact, she provides the perfect counterpoint to the Machiavellian Barbara; Sheba is a wisp of a flower girl hiding an array of razor sharp thorns beneath a pretty exterior.
This widescreen DVD version of the film features a commentary track by director Richard Eyre but, more importantly, it promises a “Behind the Scenes” featurette with Blanchett and Dench hopefully waxing philosophic on the craft and dispensing loads of meaty details on the process of developing the rich relationship between these two characters. The existence of something called “In Character with Cate Blanchett” means one of two things to me: Either Blanchett’s an overachiever or Dench had more pressing engagements and couldn’t take the time to record an equally ornate breakdown of the method. “The Story of Two Obsessions” should prove insightful for those wishing to hear from the author of the original novel what it was like to see her work adapted to the big screen.
The phrase “acting tour de force” gets thrown around way too often nowadays. It’s entirely appropriate to use with Notes on a Scandal. Rarely do today’s films contain both riveting plot and stellar performances. If you didn’t catch this in theaters last year, do yourself a favor and pick up the DVD. It’s proof that a movie doesn’t always require multimillion dollar special effects in order to blow the audience away.
Other new releases this week: Freedom Writers, The History Boys, The Last King of Scotland, Smokin’ Aces