Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Release Date:
5 Jan 2007 (Canada)

Richard Eyre

Patrick Marber (screenplay)
Zoe Heller (novel)

Judi Dench (Barbara Covett)
Cate Blanchett (Sheba Hart)
Bill Nighy (Richard Hart)
Andrew Simpson (Steven Connolly)
Juno Temple (Polly Hart)

IMDb link and rating:

(viewed SA 1 Mar 2008)
This is a magnificently acted film, with virtuoso performances by Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett . (I should include Bill Nighy in this list as well; he was terrific.) Blanchett in particular is so beguiling, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off of her in anticipation of the next subtle modulation of expression.

The hardened schoolteacher, Barbara (Dench), is drawn to the young newcomer of the faculty, Sheba (Blanchett), in an increasingly obsessive manner. When she voyeuristically discovers Sheba’s sexual relationship with a fifteen-year-old student, she is initially enraged out of jealousy. (Barbara has by this point already in her own mind constructed a future life with Sheba, an improbable fantasy that is none the less real to Barbara.) Upon second thought, however, Barbara realizes this discovery is an opportunity, a means of encircling Sheba and keeping her “bound by the secrets we share,” a chance to conquer her own loneliness by ensuring the devoted and blissful servitude of the unwitting seductress.

I say “unwitting” because Sheba does not deliberately draw Barbara in for her own purposes; unlike Barbara, Sheba is in no way calculating and manipulative. Even when she desperately needs Barbara’s help (in the form of keeping quiet about her ill-advised and, quite frankly, illegal affair), she does so almost naively, by begging and throwing herself at Barbara’s mercy. She is genuinely grateful to Barbara and in fact demonstrates friendship beyond the point that many a viewer might think is warranted. Thus, Sheba is alluring to Barbara, but does not intend to be so any more than the ancient Bathsheba intended to seduce David. She does not know until much later that her simple kindness is a seduction.

A fascinating question arises in the character of Barbara. Was she an ordinary person to begin with? The repetition of her predation (for let’s here not shrink from calling it what it is) is an indication that there is something seriously wrong with her character. But could it be sheer loneliness that can corrupt an otherwise normal soul so deeply? Can the absence of a human touch fester and rot one’s mind until there is nothing but obsessive cruelty and desperation?

As far as the affair with the student goes, it’s almost hard to watch Sheba blunder into the relationship; the peril is too obvious. But interestingly, as unwise as it was, it was also not hard to understand. Sheba had a sort of bohemian approach to life, which we glimpsed when Sheba invited Barbara to her home. (After dinner, Sheba’s whole family danced with abandon while Barbara looked on, her conservative nature hardly knowing what to make of it - but all the while, her desire for the gently writhing Sheba was stoked.) I think it was Sheba’s relatively loose approach - I wouldn’t call it loose morals - that permitted her to abandon herself to the affair, “like having another drink when you know you shouldn’t,” as she put it later. A more conservative nature would have put up blockers automatically to forbid it - but perhaps only out of fear.

In any case, as Lynne pointed out, the student represented a simplicity that Sheba did not have in her life, an escape from an older husband, a depressed daughter, and a retarded son. However wrong Sheba may have been in her submission to the flattery and pleasure of the affair, there is no doubt here about which of the characters - Barbara and Sheba - represents light and which represents darkness. After the whole scandalous affair is exposed and Sheba is reduced to the nadir of her wretchedness, she (symbolically and literally) ascends the steps up to her apartment to find forgiveness. In contrast, Barbara’s apartment is below street level, a private lair within which she pours her obsessions onto the pages of her diary.

A final note: Philip Glass’ music lends a distinct drama, even a suspense, to the film. It is perfectly suited.

(viewed SA 1 Mar 2008)

However less beguiled by Miss Blanchett I may have been than was Stephen, I agree that this was a fabulously produced movie. The subject matter, an old female predator, was not one I would expect to find compelling – but it was. This is in no small part due to the terrific performances of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.

I disagree that Sheba was innocent in either the affair with the student, or the deepening of her relationship with Barbara. Comparing the affair to “having another drink when you know you shouldn’t”, makes her motivation seem simple and her lack of self awareness seem justifiable. Meeting her student at night, touching him lovingly, and what ensues required more thought than she seemed to give it. She was not merely a passive player in the events that unfolded, merely an inactive thinker. She may have longed for the simple affection the boy offered, but her lack of introspection rippled violently not only through her life, but also that of her family.

Regarding her relationship with Barbara, Sheba’s initial overtures seem genuine but lack the same anticipation, preparation, or even clarity of thought. She is unapologetically herself, but does not seem to understand who she even is. She continued her relationship with Barbara even after knowing that Barbara had developed sexual feelings towards her because she needed Barbara to contain her knowledge about the affair.

Barbara is a fascinatingly creepy character. She appears cold and self-sufficient in the public light of day, but manages to rationalize complete, long-term relationships with other women without their consent or even knowledge. During some of the movie, I was torn between feeling sorry for and feeling repulsed by her. The last nail in the REPULSED coffin was hammered in when Barbara’s friend innocently inquired about her last “companion” and Barbara acted as if she had no idea what she was talking about. She was completely disingenuous toward the woman in a brilliant display of her depth of evasion and dishonesty.

Even with the significant moral errors made by both women, it was clear which of the two represented light, and which darkness. It was really good movie. The music added eerie support to the story.

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