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Notes On Notes On A Scandal

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Kiss me, you fool.

Notes on a Scandal
Dir: Richard Eyre

I know, I know, how can I come up with anything more clever than that title? Read on, if you dare.

Notes on a Scandal is part of the mini-British Invasion this year at the Oscars, which also includes Children of Men and The Queen. Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett have both received acting nominations, and the film has also been nominated for Adapted Screenplay and Music.

I have no problem with the acting nominations. Dench and Blanchett are two of the best actors working today. Dench is equally at home playing Queen Elizabeth I, or M from the James Bond films. She acts with a tremendous force of character and is perfectly suited for strong roles. In Notes on a Scandal though, Dench leaves behind the comfort of period costume, or pant suits, and becomes a thoroughly unlikable London high school teacher, Barbara. Oh sure, she starts off alright, and immediately has the audience’s sympathy, but as the film goes on, the story takes a dark turn. Wading into Hitchcockian waters, we realize that Barbara is in fact quite disturbed, or a blood-sucking vampire as someone puts it (not in the literal sense…though that would make for an interesting film…).

Blanchett’s character Sheba also gets the same treatment from the script. We immediately like her – a wispy, heart-in-the-right-place art teacher – but she too has secrets, and is not at all what she seems. I won’t give away what the scandal is, cause if you’re like me, you might want to go into this film without knowing a single thing. Just let me say this – don’t go and see it just simply because you like small English movies with Dame Judi or Cate Blanchett – it gets pretty intense.

The script is a good one, tight and focused, but is given another dimension by it’s superb casting. The sympathy garnered early on by Dench and Blanchett is necessary, and it might not have happened with unknown actors. This is a case where casting famous faces works to aid a small, low-budget film rather than hamper it with distractions. Of course, it also helps that Judi and Cate are superlative actors, and, as the old adage goes, could make a performance of reading the phone book at the Albert Hall a major cultural event.

A shout out should also be given to Bill Nighy, who’s such a bloody good actor, and a bloody prolific one. He just has such a wonderfully odd screen presence. He’s terrific here, in a supporting role.

However – and this is a big one folks – Notes on a Scandal isn’t a great movie. Richard Eyre’s direction feels a bit ham-fisted, and one major reason for this is his use of Phillip Glass’ music. Now, Glass has been nominated for an Oscar, and normally I’m a big fan of Glass, especially as a film composer. But in Notes on a Scandal it’s just too much of a good thing. At times the soundtrack was pounding away during scenes that didn’t even need music. This created a very distracting viewing experience. Music in film is at its most effective when you don’t really notice it – it should aid the emotional intensity of scenes, not hinder them. This isn’t Glass’s fault, it’s purely a directorial and editing decision, and it doesn’t work.

Notes on a Scandal is driven by its performances and script, and despite some poor directorial choices, still manages to be a powerful little film. llewopemearg

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