Notes on a Scandal
Remember the stink when the first Basic Instinct was released? The film was protested and picketed by lesbians and bisexuals because, they said, it traded on negative stereotypes. They even persuaded screenwriter Joe Eszterhas to apologise for what he had wrought. (Come to think of it, I guess a serial ice pick killer isn't a great role model.)
There don't seem to have been many protests at Notes on a Scandal though. It's true; Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) doesn't kill anyone. But it's been a long time since I've seen a film demonise a predatory lesbian as viciously as this one does.
Perhaps it's okay because Ms. Covett remains in the closet. You could argue it's her repression which is the seed of her malingering, not her sexuality per se. Or perhaps it's just that Dame Judi bestows a certain respectability that puts her beyond suspicion.
At any rate, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) trusts Ms. Covett implicitly. Not that she has much choice. The new art teacher in a North London comprehensive, Mrs. Hart soon realises she is out of her depth. The kids are all over her - until Barbara sorts them out. They become friends. Sheba invites her home for Sunday lunch. The older woman is distinctly unimpressed with the husband (Bill Nighy), teenage daughter and Downs Syndrome son. 'Who wouldn't want to get away from this lot?' She rationalises in her diary.
And Sheba does want to get away - at least temporarily. But it's one of her pupils who nabs her (Andrew Simpson), not crabby old Barbara. When she finds out about the affair, Ms. Covett is horrified at first. Then elated. She realises she has her where she wants her now. It need not even come down to blackmail. In guarding Sheba's secret she will garner further trust and intimacy. She should not have to spell out the obvious unless it becomes absolutely necessary.
Based on the Booker-nominated novel What Was She Thinking? by Zoe Heller, but adapted by playwright Patrick Marber (Closer), Notes on a Scandal sets out to be a kind of ILEA Dangerous Liaisons, but while it's glib and cynical, it's nowhere near fiendish enough to make good on that malicious promise. In the end it's more like a GSCE Fatal Attraction. (Dench is obviously the nearest thing we have to Glenn Close on this side of the pond.) An over-the-top melodramatic score by Philip Glass only emphasizes how ham-fisted the film gets.
It's a pity, because the first half is very good - and what's best about it is the spot-on class satire as our old-school narrator, Barbara, casts her withering eye over life in a trendy inner-city comprehensive. The depressing details ring true enough: the earnest, bureaucratic, Blairite head master (a note perfect Michael Maloney); the paunchy, Guardian-reading, coffee-swilling teachers who buzz around Blanchett's blonde novice; and above all Ms. Covett's seen-it-all-before contempt for the kids: 'Teaching is crowd control,' she assures the newcomer. 'We're a branch of social services.' That contempt easily transfers to the casually right-on Hart family, so lax; so lazily, insufferably content.
Acting-wise, it's an unfair fight. Barbara is steel, Sheba is grass. The film is told from the spinster's point of view, and director Richard Eyre doesn't seem any more sympathetic to Mrs. Hart's little love affair than anyone else - except to suggest that the spotty and conniving 15-year-old boy in question probably won't be much harmed by the experience. That goes for the audience too. The movie packages its vicarious vituperation very skillfully - but beware - it flatters to deceive.
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