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Arts & Culture

Notes on a Scandal

Early on in the film, Barbara confides in her journal people have always trusted me with their secrets. But who do I trust with mine? The line proves interesting because it initially invites the audience into Barbaras world and makes us the confidante shes never had. Yet, as the film progresses, we also discover that Barbara is not to be trusted. The entries into her journal are often sharply observant. She can describe people with the most cuttingly accurate quip, as when she assesses Shebas trendy politics as being as transparent as her skin. But as the film progresses, we come to see the gap between the world as Barbara sees it and the world as it is. She may tell us that people have always trusted her with secrets but shes such a solitary, unapproachable figure and she stares down her colleagues with such ruthlessly judgmental eyes that its difficult to imagine anyone coming to her and revealing their most intimate secrets. As for Sheba, she doesnt so much trust Barbara with her secrets as she is forced into a dependent relationship with her based on the fact that Barbara discovers her secret.

Judi Dench as Barbara in Notes on a Scandal

The disconnect between what Barbara writes or tells us and what is really happening is part of the clever design of the film. Patrick Marber (who adapted his play Closer to the screen with vicious accuracy) takes on Zo Hellers novel with the same delicious skill. He gives us dialogue and narration that is literary in its intelligence and design but which doesnt feel stuffily bound to its literary source. He gives us lines that have a crisp, fresh snap to them. Theres nothing soggy or mushy about this script. Then Dench and Blanchett deliver the lines with scalpel precision, making sure each cuts penetrates to the proper depth. These stellar actresses attack the lines with the gusto of someone whos been starved for such nourishing material. Not since Neil LaButes In the Company of Men can I think of a script that has been so successful in capturing the machinations of ruthless manipulation. Marbers script is something to be savored.

But the challenge for both actressesand the challenge for some in the audienceis that neither character is likable. Personally, I love films that feature unsympathetic characters; theres something about the challenge of pulling that off that I find deliciously satisfying. In the case of Denchs Barbara and Blanchetts Sheba, they fascinate us. Director Richard Eyre steered Dench to a much more sympathetic performance as Alzheimer ridden writer in Iris . With Notes on a Scandal , he takes her in a radically different but equally satisfying direction. He pulls us so completely into the twisted psyche of Denchs Barbara that were riveted to the screen. Its like watching Norman Bates in Psycho we dont approve of his actions but were so caught up in the details of his endeavors that we feel perversely aligned with his pursuits. The manipulations of Denchs Barbara are creepy and unsettling yet the character is so well drawn and so much more interesting than anyone else in the film that we hone in on her. Shes like a stalker in a horror film who selects a victim and then moves in with brutal effectiveness. And Dench doesnt flinch from taking on this difficult role. Shes shown in an unflattering light both physically and emotionally, and she delivers a flawless performance.

Cate Blanchett as Sheba in Notes on a Scandal

Blanchett gets to look better than Dench as Eyre films her in a soft, warm, and flattering light that makes her look more radiant than everat least in the early goings. But as the film progresses, we see an ugly, selfish side of Shebas character. She never thinks of anyone else and makes decisions that hurt her husband and children as well as the young student and his parents. Sheba may be a socially more acceptable person than Barbara but she is ultimately just as flawed and capable of just as much cruelty.

Notes on a Scandal (rated R for language and sexual content) is a perfectly calibrated psychological thriller. The combination of the razor sharp direction of Richard Eyre, the savage script by Patrick Marber and the pitch perfect performances of the two actresses makes it impossible to look away from the screen. The music by Philip Glass elevates what could have been a standard melodrama to almost Grand Guignol horror. This is by no means feel-good holiday fare but anyone who loves good filmmaking will feel good about seeing this film.

Companion viewing: Closer, Iris, In the Company of Men