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Film review

Performances worth noting

The superb acting in Notes on a Scandal often leaves viewers doling out sympathy despite themselves.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published January 11, 2007


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Take your pick of sexual predators in Richard Eyre's salaciously tart Notes on a Scandal: the teacher having an affair with a teenage boy, her older husband who seduced her young, the student capitalizing on fragile emotions, or the devious spinster whose concern masks a near-fatal attraction.

Instincts sharpened by sensational headlines will likely be confounded by Eyre's superb adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel. This is a story in which right and wrong are constantly redefined, often forcing viewers to sympathize against better judgment.

It is a chilling morality tale among amoral characters, brilliantly fleshed out by three of cinema's finest actors and an unnerving debut.

Notes on a Scandal is also among this critic's list of 2006's top 10 films, a lofty opinion that hasn't changed after three viewings.

Start with Judi Dench's mesmerizing portrayal of Barbara Covett, a sour puss on the surface and an emotional tiger underneath. Barbara's lonely life is spent herding students and keeping a voluminous personal diary shared with moviegoers through voiceovers. There's something delusional about her inner thoughts that eventually borders on psychosis; we know more about Barbara than anyone, and that's scary.

Lately her writings have centered on Sheba Hart Cate Blanchett, brilliant as always, a free-spirited first-year teacher Barbara wants as a friend. How close she wishes that friendship to be elevates the plot to Hitchcockian proportions, as Barbara uses Sheba's deepest secret for emotional leverage.

Barbara spies Sheba in a compromising position with young Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson) and doesn't report the offense. Sharing the secret, and gaining Sheba's trust and, perhaps, affection means more. Sheba plays along to save her job and marriage, unaware of Barbara's true intentions. The older woman's co-workers and family have seen this behavior before.

Notes on a Scandal is a showcase for Patrick Marber's adapted writing and for textbook acting technique, with Dench and Blanchett already nominated for Golden Globes, and Simpson and Bill Nighy as Sheba's husband, Richard, grossly overlooked. It is also impressively economical at 91 minutes, without a single wasted scene or gratuitous showdown.

Above all, Eyre and Marber find ways to somehow rationalize indiscretion and rashness. Sheba can't be entirely deviant with her obvious affection for two children, including one with Down's syndrome. Richard's support of his family can only go so far and then, perhaps, not far enough. Steven is fulfilling an adolescent dream with adult corruptness. The performances perfectly strike each conflicting note.

Certainly none more than Dench, who makes an astounding about-face from flinty royal roles to dainty monster. Her final scene makes skin crawl as her mentally unbalanced capabilities are revealed. Giving the best actress Oscar to anyone else would be scandalous.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com.

 

Review

Notes on a Scandal

Grade: A

Director: Richard Eyre

Cast: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Juno Temple, Max Lewis

Screenplay: Patrick Marber, based on the novel What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

Rating: R; sexual situations, strong profanity, mature themes including underage sexuality

Running time: 91 min.

[Last modified January 10, 2007, 09:54:02]


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