Judge Daniel MacDonald takes notes on a yellow legal pad.
One Woman's Mistake is Another's Opportunity
Nominated for four Academy Awards, Notes on a Scandal has been marketed as an intense thriller, yet the storyline implies a deliberately paced character study. So which is it?
Facts of the Case
A cosmopolitan and rather inept new teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchette, Babel), strikes up a friendship with the self-described resident battle axe, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench, The Shipping News). But when Barbara discovers Sheba has been having a torrid affair with a fifteen-year-old student, she quickly devises a plan to make Sheba forever indebted to her, and to cure her own obsessive loneliness once and for all.
But how far will Sheba go to keep her secret hidden, protecting her husband (Bill Nighy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) and two children from the truth—and how much perceived rejection is Barbara willing to take before she tears Sheba's life apart?
Notes on a Scandal, through spot-on casting and subtle, nuanced writing, manages to feature two deeply flawed, often unsympathetic main characters and makes you root for them both. The film is a kid of morality play, one in which most of the characters are immoral to one degree or another, so we end up appreciating them all. Some motivations are betrayed on the surface by the characters' very names—Barbara Covett, Sheba Hart, Bill Rumer (Shaun Parkes, Human Traffic)—but instead of simply providing for the machinations of the plot, each has their own reasons for doing what they do, both good and bad, making all seem human and worthy of empathy.
Barbara is a depressed, lonely, and manipulative woman whose life is made up almost exclusively of her work, her journals, and her cat, and her actions border on villainous; but the humanity of her character is so well presented through Dench's performance that we know she has good intentions in her twisted mind. Similarly, Sheba could be easy to dislike, a woman blessed with a faithful husband and two children, who falls under the spell of an awkwardly romantic adolescent. But Blanchette's appealing openness never lets us judge the character too harshly, making Sheba a good woman who makes bad decisions rather than any sort of adulterous predator. Blanchette is clearly one of the truly great actors working today, with seemingly limitless range. This picture is, above all, an actors' piece, and it's their craft that allows us open-minded entry into this world.
Dench, in particular, plays a dramatically different character than I've ever seen from her. On the surface, she appears quite old and frail (although she's actually 73, Dench often appears more like 60), her hair a thinning frazzled mess, her drab outfits a neutral camouflage. Yet through her acerbic, alliterative journal entries, forming the voiceover that drives the piece, we learn just how calculating and cruel she can be, and how removed her perspective is on how things actually are. Obsession and jealousy alternate with attraction and affection in the desultory sea of her mind. Barbara is a sad, needy character, but not one whom we pity; instead, we hope that she'll one day find the right person onto whom she can latch, creating a healthy and reciprocal relationship rather than the unrequited love she expresses for Sheba. This is by far my favorite performance by Dench, a deliciously rich piece of work which will surely reward multiple viewings.
Also of note is Nighy in his small but important role as Sheba's husband Richard. When we first meet him, he seems like such a fully realized character that it's as if he is the star of his own film running parallel with this one. His interaction with Sheba, and especially with his son, who suffers from Down's syndrome, is perfectly naturalistic and underplayed, while a scene late in the film showcases an intense emotional honesty.
Screenwriter Patrick Marber (Closer) has changed the first person perspective (that of Barbara) from Zoe Heller's novel to present both women's stories almost equally. By doing so, the 'twist' element, discovering how different Barbara's view on her relationship with Sheba is from reality (I haven't read the book, but this is mentioned in an included featurette), is eliminated, allowing us instead to realize early on that Barbara is far from being as innocuous as she appears. It's a wise choice, as the film's structure is what maintains our sympathy for both characters simultaneously.
Naturalistic cinematography by Chris Menges (The Boxer) assists Marber's screenplay in swapping between points of view, which is noted by director Richard Eyre (Iris) in his chatty and insightful audio commentary. Subtle choices in framing help us to oscillate between Barbara and Sheba as protagonist; as examples, check out the tentative approach of the camera as Barbara visits Sheba's house for the first time, or the overhead angle of Sheba as she storms out of a building to face reporters. Shallow focus ensures there's rarely more than one clear subject in the frame, and the subjective shot choices make the audience somewhat complicit in the action as opposed to being an objective observer.
But perhaps my favorite aspect of the picture is the driving, complex score by the great Philip Glass (The Illusionist). Every score by Glass is a unique treasure (the fact that he lost the Oscar for his mesmerizing Kundun score to James Horner's obvious themes in Titanic continues to keep me up at night), with layers of complementary strings adding an unexpected dimension to the film's action. Here, the score relentlessly pushes the narrative forward, implying an inescapable denouement for the characters and setting a tone similar to that of a thriller, albeit one in which not much actually happens.
While Fox chose to supply DVD Verdict with a watermarked 'check disc' for review purposes, meaning the picture is somewhat more compressed than that of the final product, it appeared to be clean, sharp, and blemish-free, with only the occasional compression artifact. The audio isn't given much of a workout as far as atmospherics, but reproduces the wide dynamic range used in the score—some use of low-end late in the picture, as the themes get darker, are particularly, and appropriately, jolting.
The previously mentioned audio commentary is the disc's most in-depth feature, outside of the movie itself. While often describing the action onscreen, usually a commentary no-no, Eyre does so in such a way as to explore the characters' respective motivations and underlying emotion, which, given the sparse nature of the writing, is welcome and adds to the overall enjoyment of the picture.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A scene late in the picture hints that Sheba's family is thoroughly fed up with Barbara, and that she has more than worn out her welcome. While this hint is all that is needed to get the point, it's a bit abrupt, I liked the character of Sheba's husband so much that I would have appreciated more on this (of course, being left wanting more is a hallmark of good drama).
The DVD itself appears to have a wide range of special features, but most end up rather repetitive and shallow. Many interview snippets and film clips are repeated verbatim from featurette to featurette, which is annoying, especially so because you have to watch all of them to get all of the information. Outside of having more to list on the DVD case, I don't understand the rationale of stretching so little material into so many shallow segments—if you're going to take the time to watch 'Notes on a Scandal: The Story of Two Obsessions', you'll probably also want to check out 'Notes on a Scandal: Behind the Scenes', so why repeat most of the same clips instead of making one longer mini-documentary? Supplements like this give DVD special features a bad name.
Notes on a Scandal is a thoughtful film that never judges its characters, showcasing the considerable acting prowess of its leads. While the subject matter may seem lurid, it's far from exploitation, instead providing a healthy portion of food for thought. A recommended rental or purchase.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Richard Eyre
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