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DVD Review: Notes on a Scandal

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Are you looking for a tightly wound thriller that doesn't waste time on extraneous plot points? Perhaps a film that eschews the trend towards bloat, you know, something with a running time that doesn't require planning on just how you are to fit it all in? Maybe you just want to see a film that is skillfully told, that draws you in and holds you in its grasp as the cast puts on an acting clinic? Or maybe you are just tired of what passes for a smart thriller in the Hollywood mold, looking for something that is a little different, intriguing, smart, and genuinely thrilling. Well, have I got the movie for you. I have to recommend that you give Notes on a Scandal a spin — it is not what you think and more than you expect.

To read a plot description would give you slight insight to what the film is about, yet fail to tell you the whole story, or even who the story is truly about. It tells the story of Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a new schoolteacher who is spied in a compromising position with one of her young students. The spy is Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), a woman who sees this as an opportunity to ingratiate herself to the new educator and give her a position of power over her. What follows is the escalation of a friendship into a Fatal Attraction-style relationship. The growing tension gathers steam until both sides reach their breaking points, leading to dark secrets being revealed that will change the nature of their relationship forever.

It is a story that reads like a "based on a true story" ripped from current headlines. We have all seen the stories of teachers entering into illicit affairs with underage students, and the plot of Notes on a Scandal hangs on this type of situation. However, while that is a very important plot point, it just scratches the surface of the whole story. The story is not about the affair, it is about a third party, Judi Dench's Barbara, using knowledge of said tryst to control the relationship that has developed.

I am hesitant to reveal to much about the story for fear of giving anything away, since the film is rather tightly plotted, leaving little wiggle room for diving in. It is a film that has much nuance and has a lot to be discovered, and it is definitely better to slip into the thrills without too much outside influence.

I will say that the film has a wonderful style and is interesting in how it steps away from the normal methodology of thrillers of the type. The biggest thing is the perspective; rather than focusing on the primary players of the affair and the repercussions they face, it is placed into the hands of that third party who uses the knowledge to her advantage, giving her a certain power. This is translated from the novel, which was told through a series of diaries, the notes of the title. It is a perspective that had to be adjusted to allow the story to be told on screen.

Aside from the story and the way it is told, the film is anchored in the completely believable performances of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. The two of them put on an incredible show that sucks you in and doesn't let go. There is also the fine supporting performance by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest's Bill Nighy, hitting all the right dramatic and comedic notes. They work from the marvelous script by Patrick Marber, based on Zoe Heller's novel, and are supported by a wonderful score by Phillip Glass.

Audio/Video. Video is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and it looks very good, with sharp colors, and darkness that holds good detail. Audio is Dolby Digitial 5.1 and sounds fine, doing justice to Phillip Glass' score and the dialogue is always clear.

Extras. The disk has a few extras of note.

  • Commentary. The track features director Richard Eyre, it is a good listen, covering elements of the story, performance, and shot with very little dead air.
  • Notes on a Scandal: The Story of Two Obsessions. This is a twelve minute featurette covering the story and how it was translated to the screen and depicts the two central women. It features interviews with Richard Eyre, Zoe Heller, Cate Blanchett, and Judi Dench.
  • Notes on a Scandal: Behind the Scenes. Five minutes of behind the scenes footage.
  • In Character with Cate Blanchett. Two minutes of Cate Blanchett and how she came to know the character of Sheba Hart.
  • Webisodes. Thirteen minutes of footage compiled on the characters and screenplay that was originally released online leading up to the film's release.
  • Theatrical Trailer.

On a side note, I recently listened to a podcast from Creative Screenwriting Magazine that featured a live performance and Q&A with Zoe Heller, Patrick Marber, and Phillip Glass. It featured comparison readings from the book and script, as well as Mr. Glass performing portions of the score live. It was a wonderful listen that ran for over an hour. If you like the movie, you should look up the episode on iTunes and give it a listen.

Bottom line. This is a nice DVD; it is an excellent film and has some interesting features added on. Sure, a couple are fluff, but the commentary is very good. The film is definitely worht seeing for the convergence of character and performer, or story and script. It may not be the greatest film ever, but it is a good example of a film that rises above.

Highly Recommended.

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