Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 2.8.07


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Judi Dench writes herself into a corner

NOTES ON A SCANDAL: Directed by Richard Eyre. Written by Patrick Marber. Cinematography, Chris Menges. Music, Philip Glass. Starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy and Andrew Simpson. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2007. R. 92 minutes.

Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal

There are a number of very fine actresses working today — far more, unfortunately, than roles for them to play. But in my opinion there are relatively few transformative actors at any given time, meaning women (or men) who don’t portray a role as much as create it from the inside out. These performers are so spirited, so emotionally courageous, that their work regularly elevates and even transcends the overall project. To this rarified category I’d nominate Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, who together make Notes on a Scandal one of the best films of 2006.

One of the many pleasures of Notes on a Scandal is how, via her diary entries, Dench’s intransigent Barbara — an uncompromising, cast-iron schoolteacher — deludes herself into thinking that lovely Sheba (Cate Blanchett) might desire her. Initially dismissive of Sheba, an art teacher with Joni Mitchell’s frail beauty, Barbara eventually warms to her, to the point that Barbara can’t think of much else. Even Jane Austen couldn’t contrive a scenario by which these two would fall in love, and Barbara’s blindness to that fact arouses our sympathy. Dench’s transformation from repulsion to affection is tour de force, revealing a brilliant but spiteful woman who’s almost as lonely as she is judgmental.

As noble as the theme of unrequited love may be, Notes on a Scandal then layers in obsession and betrayal, not to mention (depending on how you see things) some indications of mental unrest. Sheba is Blanchett at her most kittenish; wispy and beguiling, she awakens the passions of everyone around her. But Sheba has a terrible secret. When Barbara discovers it, this self-proclaimed “battleaxe” manipulates Sheba into being her special friend. The plan works until Barbara needs more than Sheba can give, setting in motion a series of events that should change them all forever. But even here, Notes on a Scandal surprises.

Unfortunately, when Sheba’s moment of clarity arrives, it takes the form of a highly contrived “discovery” about Barbara. It involves an oversight Barbara wouldn’t let happen. The film momentarily falters, but just as quickly finds its footing again. Notes on a Scandal benefits from a tense, percussive score by the always-recognizable Philip Glass, as well as a smart screenplay (other than the discovery mentioned above) by Patrick Marber, the writer of Closer. A deliciously wicked tale of infidelity and a complex psychological drama, Notes on a Scandal gives new meaning to the term “affairs of the heart.”       

Notes on a Scandal opens Friday, Feb. 9 at the Bijou.