Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Notes On Notes On A Scandal

When a friend asked me my impressions on the movie Notes on a Scandal, I told her, “It was excellent, but depressing.” We both observed how rare it is that a superior film falls into descriptions of "humorous," or "uplifting." The movie is located in Islington, an area in London where once a native asked me how to get to Kentish Town Road. When I gave him detailed directions, his girlfriend punched him in the arm and said, “A YANK had to tell you that.” The gist of the movie is about two women, each lonely in her own way: the unglamorous, acerbic Barbara, played by Judi Dench, and lucky by birth Bathsheba, born into privilege and beauty, played by Cate Blanchett.

Sheba, as a novice teacher, meets Barbara, the experienced pro, and they quickly form a friendship, while knowing very little of each other. Later it is revealed that Sheba has already fallen into a physical relationship with her 15-year old pupil, an Irish boy named Steven, but this scandal seems largely downplayed while the film explores issues of loneliness, revenge, privilege and desires. Barbara witnesses one of these illicit intimacies and uses it for leverage to control Sheba who has evolved into her obsession. The relationship between these two women becomes the crux of the film. Since Barbara (Judi Dench) is responsible for the voice-over narration in the film, you are always receiving her perceptions, but it is through the disclosed actions of the film that you see other aspects of her own behavior. Her voice is so rational and salient that the discoveries are unexpected and reveal a mind driven mad by loneliness. (I should mention that Bill Nighy is in this film as Sheba’s husband, Richard. He continues to amaze me in terms of the breadth of the roles he tackles. He is currently in a David Hare play on Broadway (with Julianne Moore) called The Vertical Hour.)

A while back, when I was in London for long periods of time, I used to marvel that they ran commercials before the movie. It seemed so odd, and I was proud of the fact that we didn’t have this nasty practice back in the States. Last night while I sat through the ads, there were (I lost count of how many) pitches for Coca Cola, and the usual shill for the National Guard. This older woman in front of me with her calico hair tossed up in a loose bun, a la Katharine Hepburn said, “That’s enough propaganda,” after seeing the second ad. You sensed a certain desperation for enrollment in the military. Another aspect of living in London is the media. Every day you can go into a newsagent like W. H. Smith and buy a sheaf of newspapers, many of them nothing more than scandal sheets. This certainly comes out in the movie where once Sheba's involvement with the student does break (leaked by Barbara), reporters hound both women, repeatedly shouting out to Barbara, calling her a "crone."

One thing that continues to amaze me is the willingness of the British actress to sidestep her American counterpart’s habits of plastic surgery and the pursuit of external youth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Judi Dench look plainer: a lumpy wardrobe, fried hair, with every wrinkle deeply etched. So stripped of beauty, her talent seemed comparable to being alone in the desert with only her acting to support her. Cate Blanchett seems luminous in the film. Shot in one scene sitting on a toilet, she looked as elegant as a fawn in the forest, ready to startle. Sheba doesn’t seem aware of her beauty and never uses it as leverage for control or power. I thought of that aspect of beauty so at odds with the bombardment of visual images we receive of incubus Paris Hilton sucking the life blood out of the camera lens.
The loneliness of an older woman, and it’s emotional and physical isolations, made me think of a fact mentioned in the book I am currently reading called The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Mark Coleman. While this specific area of Soho was being ravaged by cholera in 1849, men who were tracking the outbreak couldn’t understand why older women were being spared in this attack on the population. Investigators of the time thought perhaps it might be due to sturdier constitutions or more hygenic lifestyles, when in truth the answer lay in the women being old, infirm, living alone and having no one to bring the tainted water to them.

Sheba is lonely in a seemingly vibrant family situation. Barbara’s loneliness is physical and emotional isolation. One aspect of really well done art is when you can relate to each portrayal and see something of yourself in each character’s complexity and in that respect, this movie is successful.


Blogger Momentary Academic said...

Damn, it. Now I've got to see the movie. You're too awesome for words.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Brunch Bird said...

Ditto. I was kind of "eh" about it, but now I'm thinking it's a definite.

2:36 PM  
Blogger playfulinnc said...

Great review. The pic of the Dame at her desk is what I look like today.

Or, for an even more brilliant look at my acting chops, check out ny 18 minute zombie home video.

3:01 PM  
Blogger The View from Dupont said...

See, I've been dying to see this movie - thanks for the extra push!

3:04 PM  
Blogger KassyK said...

Great review. I am looking forward to this...both women are two of my favorite actresses...Cate Blanchett must be in about 400 movies this year and last. Good for her. :)

4:05 PM  
Blogger Velvet said...

Aah good! A friend just said she wanted to see this, sounds awesome.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Velvet said...

Aah good! A friend just said she wanted to see this, sounds awesome.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Stef said...

This is at the top of my list of things to see right now, along with Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. (Not just because of Clive Owen!) And your reference to Paris Hilton as a blood-sucking incubus nearly made me snort Sprint out my nose. :-)

8:20 PM  
Blogger Megarita said...

Great review--I've been looking forward to this one. Two of my favorite women on screen!

9:30 AM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Now I have to see the film. Thank you.

I love Judy Dench, every wrinkle, fried hair and lump. She is an awesome actress, unashamed of having grown older. She's a great role model for me, heading towards old age with no desire for plastic surgery.

I love Kate Blanchett, such an actress. Some day she'll have the wrinkles, too. It happens to all of us. Sigh.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Ryane said...

What a great write up. I wanted to see this movie anyway, and now I will put it on my to-do list for the weekend.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

MA: I wound up seeing Golden Flower when this film was sold out the first attempt I made.

Brunch: Definitely make it a definite. ;)

Playful: I LOVED your zombie video, and what a great guy you have.

View: This is one that will have you thinking about "things" once you've seen it.

Miss Kassy: No kidding. I almost wound up seeing her the next night in The Good German.

Velvet: ...and it's not a chick flick.

Stef: Children of Men is on my list for a "next".

Mega: Everyone in the cast was excellent. You would love the writing.

Reya: It takes a confident woman to go on the big screen looking like she did. Her voice came out of that "look" with a shooting intelligence and a palpable pain of emptiness.

Ryane: You'll like it.

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Sugar said...

They should put you on the payroll!:) Excellent review! I've been hearing about the film, but hadn't made a move to find out exactly what it's about, now I will. Thanks!

3:30 PM  
Blogger Stef said...

I saw this today, finally, and you were right. It's a very well-written and stunningly well-acted film. Wow! Now I'm rooting for Judi and Cate for the Golden Globes tonight. :-)

6:41 PM  

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