Pair Of Queens
By Noel Vera
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
First published in Businessworld, 03/09/07.
Comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org