Friday, September 10, 2010

The Movie List: Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Film: Notes on a Scandal
Director: Richard Eyre
Oscar Nominations: 4 (Actress, Judi Dench; Supporting Actress, Cate Blanchett; Original Score, Philip Glass; Adapted Screenplay, Patrick Marber)
There's a certain perversion to human relationships. We'd like to believe that friendships are forged out of a mutual respect for one another, but sometimes that's just not the case (and some psychologists/philosophers will argue that that's never the case): one party seeks to gain something. And then there are some whose motives are even more sinister, looking to manipulate the other party for gain or amusement.
Its this toxic latter relationship that Notes on a Scandal investigates. Judi Dench stars as Barbara Covett, a prudish history teacher who lives alone with her cat and prefers to do things her way. When a new art teacher, Sheba Hart, arrives, Barbara almost instantly takes a shine to her, and seeks her friendship. Barbara inserts herself into Sheba's life (much to the chagrin of the latter's husband, played by Bill Nighy), and it becomes obvious that she's obsessed with her. And when Barbara discovers that Sheba is having an affair with a 15-year-old student, their relationship becomes even more perverse as she manipulates her knowledge of the affair.
At 92 minutes, it may be too brief of a film to fully comprehend their complicated relationship. But the film packs as much high-wire melodrama into that running time as possible. The various twists and turns in the plot are the stuff of soap opera legend, yet they all feel organic and true to the characters. Though Dench's voice-over narration (being read from Barbara's diary) overstays its welcome, her performance is nothing short of stunning: she makes Barbara sweetly sinister and completely undecipherable: there's never a moment when you can directly see what she's thinking. Dench also beautifully portrays her obsession as boiling just under the surface, letting it drive all of her actions without ever being explicit. Blanchett, too, is stunning, delivering a compelling performance as a woman whose life is imploding because of her own selfishness.
The push-and-pull between these two women is excellently illustrated by Eyre. He visually gives us the contrast between cynical, upper-class, stringent Barbara and free-spirited, optimistic, artsy Sheba. And Eyre keeps the action tense, never letting it spiral into the ridiculous. Its an engaging, rewarding film about the dark side of friendship.

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