A Pair Of Queens
By Noel Vera

Notes On A Scandal
Dir: Richard Eyre(2006)

In the wake of Helen Mirren's sweep of Hollywood's annual horse derbies for playing Her Royal Highness (a victory that was for the most part deserved, having cracked open that unattractive granite façade to reveal the hint--and it's the sense that you're getting a mere hint that's so compelling--of something warm and vital pulsing inside), two equally impressive performances seem to have been forgotten: Judi Dench's and Cate Blanchett's, for this picture.

Richard Eyre's adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel "What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal" doesn't do much in the way of using the medium to tell its story, beyond the occasional cliché of using handheld shots to suggest the chaos of reporters surrounding a notorious public figure, or the benign chaos that reigns when a family goes about its business of contented living, but the theater veteran does inspire wonderful work from these two royalties.

As with his previous picture "Iris," a biopic about author Iris Murdoch, he pairs Ms. Dench with a younger woman--there, Kate Winslet, as the younger Murdoch; here Blanchett, as Sheba (short for Bathsheba) Hart, the object of not-so-obscure desire by the rather obviously named Barbara Covett (Dench).

Covett, a longstanding history teacher who has become both fixture and institution, grimly describes herself as a "battle-axe." She's quietly formidable when submitting an insultingly succinct report to the school principal; she's equally formidable facing down two battling teenagers, one of which has just called Ms. Hart "a tart." "You will apologize at once," she informs the offending youth, who is cowed enough to comply.

Sheba is grateful; she develops a close friendship with the battle-axe. It's part of the novel and film's scheme, of course, to keep her unaware of just what she's getting into; we already know from the start. Using the age-old device of the voiceover narrating excerpts from a private memoir, we're privy to Barbara's thoughts, and they're just a firm step short of being apocalyptic: "In the old days we confiscated cigarettes and wank mags," she muses, watching the stream of students pass; "now it's knives and crack cocaine.

And they call it progress." At the school departmental meeting her report consisted of a single page noting that the department's results were "below the national average but above the level of catastrophe. Recommendation: no change necessary."

Voiceover may be an old device but used carefully it can be effective. It's amusing, for example, to take note of Barbara's words and see Eyre's camera either confirm their acerbic observations or give away their delusional nature. When Barbara first spots Sheba, she can't make up her mind whether the young woman was "a sphinx or stupid;" when they later become friends she declares that Sheba "is the one I've been waiting for."

She's surprised to see that Sheba's husband, Richard (Bill Nighy, always excellent) is an older man--is, in fact, a former professor who has left his wife to marry one of his students, and that the son they had together suffers from Down's syndrome. When the family gambols or dances together, Barbara puts this all down as the self-indulgent frolicking of the "privileged;" all we see is a reasonably loving family, happy with itself.

What makes Barbara such a compelling character, however, isn't so much that spiky armor she wears for protection but the howling loneliness hidden away inside the armor. You catch glimpses of it in the eager way she prepares herself when Sheba invites Barbara to dinner, a singular event, as she puts it, in the "arctic wasteland" of her social calendar; you see it in the hungry way she looks at Sheba despite her verbal disapproval--the way her gaze lingers on Sheba's slim hands, graceful cleavage, wide, rouged lips.

Blanchett and Dench--with Nighy's skillful support--all play together so beautifully that you may not notice how carefully Eyre (or Heller, possibly) cleverly stacks the deck.

We're asked to believe that Sheba despite her loving family would be naïve enough to fall under the spell of a fifteen year old boy with all the finesse and subtlety of a teenage Neanderthal--when you read about cases where a teacher has had an affair with her underaged pupil, you almost always find that there's a pattern, a consistency in the psychological makeup (they've done this before, or had this done to themselves (yes, Richard fell in love with her as a student, but as Richard points out, she was twenty at the time)).

Blanchett plays Sheba as a dewy young doe, more innocent--though physically older--than her boyfriend; we're asked to believe that she's less sexual predator than sexual victim, or at least chronically unable to make up her mind as to the right thing to do.

Likewise Barbara: after having so skillfully and patiently manipulated Sheba, we're asked to believe that she would jeopardize it all for a dead housecat; worse, we're asked to believe she would give up her blackmail scheme so easily, when the classic blackmailer knows well that it's the threat of exposure that gives one power--once one actually reveals the secret, one's power is lost.

But never mind psychological plausibility--Eyre and Heller seem determined to provide the maximum number of revelations and dramatic confrontations, plus endless footage of cameramen and reporters running after one fleeing fugitive or another, seemingly confident that whatever improbables might arise their wonderful pair of actors will wave it all regally away.

And, to a large extent, they're right--Blanchett and Dench go a long way towards helping us buy this rather clunky thriller with the Sapphic subtext and requisite Philip Glass music score (Glass is apparently the go-to guy for composing music for obsessive characters in movies; his droning, repetitive tones naturally, almost comically, evoke single-minded resolve in a protagonist), confident in the idea that if they can't give us some kind of truth about their subject matter, they can at least amuse us for ninety minutes.

I can't take this seriously as some kind of great meditation on woman-on-woman relationships, or even as some kind of profound comment on loneliness or fixation, but I can enjoy it for what it is: a fairly well-made entertainment, showcasing two members of the English-language cinema's acting royalty, on their very best game.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 03/09/07.
Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@hotmail.com

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March 23, 2007