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Movie Review: Notes on a Scandal – You Were Temptation

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She had begun to feel strangely detached from the proceedings. "I was sort of watching myself," she recalls. "Smiling at what a silly I was being. It was as if I had become my own rather heartless biographer."

Next, I got out the toolbox from under the sink. Eddie's tools are terribly expensive and grand. I was nearly seduced by a hand-carved mallet with an ivory handle. But I settled in the end for a small, steel axe. (Less beauty, more power.) — Zoë Heller, What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal) (2003)

 

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS 

In Notes on a Scandal, adapted by playwright Patrick Marber from Zoë Heller's witchily astute novel, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is a 60-something history teacher at a London comprehensive school, who, if she ever had high expectations of the career in education she began nearly 35 years ago, has long since given up on them.

Barbara is now a washed-out, scrub-haired, pinch-faced martinet who doesn't confine her sharp discipline to her own classroom. In all public spaces she speaks smartingly to the multi-ethnic "pubescent proles" from the school's catchment area, whom she despises because most of them will not profit from her instruction in ways she values. Barbara also provides voice-over narration read from a diary she has kept since the 1950s and we hear her refer to the students as "future shop assistants and plumbers. And doubtless the odd terrorist too." She plays the prison wardress and is effective precisely because she harbors no illusions about the students, none.

Barbara doesn't partake of her colleagues' idealism about education in any formal way — in the movie, for instance, she refuses to write a full-scale report of how her department could be improved. Her flinty expression tells her fellow "educators" that they are incapable of altering her rock-bottom estimate of them. And sometimes she just tells them, though not in so many words. Her point is not lost, however, because she is a mistress of words (and Marber's screenplay, though theatrically compacted and slightly altered from the original, makes for a wonderful read right alongside Heller's novel). On the subject of the school, Barbara's tone is arsenical.

Apart from her beloved cat Portia, Barbara does not find satisfaction outside work, either. A repressed lesbian, she had previously befriended Jennifer Dodd, a young female colleague who responded to the attention until Barbara grew too insistent. Barbara projected a shared life with the unwitting — and heterosexual — Jennifer. After Jennifer announced her engagement, she had to threaten Barbara with an injunction to keep her at bay.

At the start of the school year, Barbara's eye is caught by Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the new art teacher. Though Barbara initially describes Sheba quite tartly, and not at all inaccurately, she soon senses that Sheba is "different." Nothing like squishily upbeat Sue Hodge (Joanna Scanlan) — whom Barbara refers to in the novel as "Fatty" and calls a "living anthology of mediocre sentiments" — who advises Sheba to console herself with the "gems" among the students.

In short order Barbara falls in love with Sheba, and a bond fortuitously forms between them when Barbara breaks up a fight in Sheba's class that the novice teacher plainly can't handle (and doesn't realize is about her). Sheba is so grateful she invites Barbara over for Sunday lunch with her older husband Richard (Bill Nighy) and their children — a petulant teenaged daughter named Polly (Juno Temple) and a son with Down's syndrome named Ben (Max Lewis), whom Barbara snidely pigeonholes in her diary as "a pocket princess" and "a somewhat tiresome court jester." After lunch, Sheba takes Barbara back to her home studio and confides lavishly in this woman she barely knows. The problem isn't that Sheba is imparting too much information but that she's unsuspectingly exciting Barbara, who will later preserve a fallen hair from Sheba's head between pages in her notebook and then save a seat at the school Christmas pageant for her as if they were attending it on a date.

When Sheba doesn't appear at the pageant, Barbara goes looking and spies her putting her clothes on after dallying with Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), a 15-year-old student. (In the book, when Barbara tells of the school's history as a Victorian orphanage it's hard not to think of Heller as giving sly new meaning to Dickens's Dotheboys Hall.) Barbara is infuriated by what she thinks of as a "betrayal," though it's only a betrayal of her fantasies, which Sheba is unaware of. Barbara's denial is so impenetrable that she expresses her anger at this "rejection" as inflexible rectitude. As she tells her diary, however, this "disappointment" actually presents an opportunity to insinuate herself further into Sheba's life.

Both women are unself-aware in ways that only entangle them further. After Sheba initially opens up to her after the lunch, Barbara (who is from a resolutely middle-class family but nonetheless "the more educated woman" compared to "posh" Sheba) writes mordantly of the "immediate incautious intimacy" in "bourgeois bohemia." This also means, however, that Sheba will be only too ready to confide every gradation of her affair to Barbara, as if the truth — which Sheba reveals in the light of her relatively innocuous habit of quasi-therapeutic self-examination — couldn't possibly harm her. Barbara makes Sheba promise to stop seeing Steven, which Sheba does without realizing what Barbara will read into this act of submission. In Barbara's mind, acutely observant and yet as emotionally turbulent as Polly's, this is the beginning of a love affair. For a living mummy like Barbara the absence of consensual signs and words is without significance.

Barbara makes her boldest physical move at Sheba's house just when Sheba is expecting Steven, whom she couldn't resist seeing again. (Sheba should know better, but it's made clear that this fox-eyed scamp with burning cheeks seduces her rather than the reverse. Sheba isn't a predator, merely a fool, though far less deluded and remote in the movie than in the book.) This allows Barbara to increase her demands, imagining that she'll be able to break Sheba away from her family and even that it's for Sheba's greater happiness that she's doing so. When those demands become too great for Sheba, as they had for Jennifer, a spent Barbara, smeared with dirt from grubbing Portia's grave into which she also throws an expensive gift from Sheba, tattles to a fellow teacher with the lethal cunning of a Borgia courtier. The repercussions extend beyond Barbara's expectations but she doesn't care because the two unemployed ladies end up alone together in Barbara's basement flat.

It is not a sense of duty that makes me go into the plot in such detail, but something more like gourmandise: I could talk about this movie non-stop for weeks on end. The characters' motives are base enough, and there's an odd combination of petty incidents having walloping consequences, but the ironies are as delicately layered and "delicious" as they could possibly be without a hint of preciosity. We're always aware that we're watching an ironic comedy about two women who can't control their lust and who bollocks their way into a parody of a relationship. At the same time, this wicked, pungent entertainment is also a work of sensibility, partaking of the still-vibrant tradition of the English novel (as did Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice, Julian Fellowes's Separate Lies, and the Australian John Hillcoat and Nick Cave's The Proposition [all 2005]).

Barbara's narration is an amazing combination of acute observation of character and class; nastiness and conniving that wouldn't be out of place in an abduction melodrama; and girlishly exalted sexual reveries and bitter resentment when abruptly awakened from them. The narration, which in the novel Barbara writes retrospectively with the goal of "shed[ding] a little light on the true nature of [Sheba's] personality", tells us much more about Barbara herself. Thus, we are privy to the workings of Barbara's strong mind as it is warped by her emotions, at the same time that she pushes the story along, chop chop.

Although Barbara manipulates Sheba in the manner of a villainous seducer, and both women's offenses resemble romances of temptation, their stories have been conceived in terms of novelistic identification rather than allegorical admonition. That is, Barbara is not the personification of Sheba's temptation and its consequences — she's not apparitional (as Glenn Close is in Fatal Attraction [1987] by way of contrast). Thus, the whole raft of allegorical surnames — Covett, Hart, Pabblem, Rumer, Shreve, Bangs, Self — register without making the story symbolic or didactic. Barbara never becomes a "type," not even in the book when she attaches the Pecksniffian euphemism of "Sheba's unofficial guardian" to herself to justify rummaging in the younger woman's handbag. One of the great ironies of this brisk, candid approach to character is that Barbara's self-deception is so exactingly portrayed you wouldn't have a keener sense of what it's like to be Barbara if you were Barbara.

She remarks that she was a quiet girl and dissembles to Sheba by saying that she never had time to have children, but even as a lesbian Barbara has faded and withered without having bloomed. It's apparent she has no memories to carry her into old age, and it's this depth of dustiness that puts people off and makes every new day as bleak as that past. The stern exterior, the commanding air, which present the very image of adult authority, result from sexual repression that has left her chaotically delusional: under the crusty shell of a drab old maid bubble the gooey insides of a lovesick girl who exults about her flaxen-haired "friend" to her diary and plasters the pages with gold stars. But her repression is hers; Marber explicitly refuses to lay it off on the "deferred gratification stock" from which she comes. As we see during a Christmas get-together, Barbara's family attempts to accept her as a lesbian; she coldly says she doesn't know what her sister is talking about.

Barbara is believably repellent but much of her acerbic commentary is dead-on, and many of us would love to treat bureaucratic paper-shuffling with the open contempt it deserves. In the book, Heller gives Barbara more "devastating" speeches on various topics: the "unrelenting sanctimony" and "titillated fury" of the press coverage of statutory rape cases; her colleagues' "do-gooding fantasies" of "making a difference"; the tendency of "bleeding hearts" to concoct "soppy rationalizations for delinquency". Marber understandably had to trim them because onscreen they would probably sound smug, editorializing, as if we were supposed to like Barbara because we agreed with her.

When it comes to Barbara's early comments about Sheba's sense of entitlement, they are devastatingly right and funny, even if tonally off (too much feeling invested). But let's be frank, even when Barbara's comments descend to meanness — with respect to Sue Hodge and Ben — it's possible to identify with her because you know her disappointment has cut her off from other people and she has no idea what to do about it. Heller has constructed character with classic novelistic scrupulousness and Marber, whose original work is rather more vulcanized, fully respects it.

The narration goes back to the beginnings of naturalistic prose fiction in the epistolary novel, replicating every nuance of the character's personality in her own voice. At the same time, however, despite Barbara's "wish to be as rigorously and unsparingly truthful as possible" about herself in both book and film, we gather so much more information about Barbara than she intends to impart or would acknowledge as true that she is also that distinctively modern-ironic creature, the unreliable narrator, in the tradition of Ford Madox Ford's John Dowell and Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. In fact, Barbara is no less an object of irony than the people she describes so scathingly, and as much as any movie I can think of Notes on a Scandal balances the audience's compassion for, amusement at, and aversion to its protagonist.

Thus, what Barbara experiences as intolerable vulnerability looks like predation from the outside, and the moviemakers don't press us to resolve our ambivalence. Still, Notes on a Scandal is more fascinating the more you can identify with maddening Barbara — to see yourself as others may have seen you at those times when you have projected your own far-fetched hopes onto someone else, or made demands on people who don't realize you think they're offering what you've tacitly accepted as yours. Identification with Barbara darkens the outré anecdote into mourning shade. One of Marber's very best additions is Polly's line when she sees Barbara coming to speak to her mother after the scandal has broken: "Oh, Jesus wept! The spectre at the feast!" At certain times someone might have said this about almost any one of us with equal justice.

It also makes a huge difference that we do not have the same access to Sheba's interior as to Barbara's. If we did, the temptation would be too great to identify with the pretty one and thus excuse the affair that puts her in Barbara's clutches, which would be to turn naturalism into melodrama. At the same time, the movie's Sheba is not the baffling creature she is in the novel, who ends up a husk, in Barbara's keeping. The movie's Sheba had to be different from the book's shifty, perverse, and arrogant adulteress, because any actress has too much presence to be that creepy without putting us off the story.

The movie's Sheba is a downy vision of how money and class make swans of certain Englishwomen, which is key to her justification of her sexual indiscretion. The world simply is nothing like the swan pond she expected. Sheba looks longingly at an old photo of herself as a kohl-eyed punk as if to ask, How did I lose what I had? She also plays Siouxsie and the Banshees' 1980 LP Kaleidoscope for Steven, hoping to regain what she lost, not realizing the trap that nostalgia for adolescence sets. Without seeming inordinately spoiled, Sheba clearly feels she deserves a little something more when it presents itself in an unlikely, not to mention illegal, form.

Thus, in the movie Sheba is as articulate, "creative," loving, and hopeful as nature and nurture could make her, so we can understand why ordinary life would not be fulfilling in the way she hoped it would be. At the same time, while Blanchett's Sheba may be more lovely in transgression than we would be, the movie casts Barbara's cold eye on her rationalizations and puts a stop to any romantic daydreaming on our part. The movie presents Sheba more sympathetically than Heller did, and even somewhat indulgently, but the book's fundamental astringency remains.

The script is spectacularly fine, but it wouldn't be nearly as effective without Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. This makes sense because Marber wrote the script with them in mind, and I say this without being a fan of either actress. Never has a less versatile or more ungiving movie actress than Dench been used as indiscriminately, though it's clear why directors and up-market audiences like her: she marshals and deploys her immense technical resources with military precision. So did the great Edith Evans, but unlike Dench, Evans enjoyed the fancy-dress, the occasion for grand gesture that playacting provided, the mannered dialogue that seemed to call for her archly reverberant delivery (that voice could quaver like a towering fruit-filled Jell-o mold). Dench conveys a sense of gravity, of somewhat humorless duty. She has become the personification of English theatrical skill at a time of morbid self-doubt, Britannia as a corroded but still razor-sharp battleaxe. She may be a great actress, but one who plays both Lady Bracknell and Lady Catherine de Bourg without getting laughs is not my kind of great actress.

All of which makes her perfect for Barbara, and the sophistication and adamantine intelligence that usually keep Dench from melting into her characters is just right for Barbara, helplessly frozen inside herself. It's brilliant casting: that magnificent age-cracked picklepuss emphasizes the precision of the writing because we can see Barbara blasting possibilities with her glance and then retreating even further from what she experiences as a world without possibilities.

Neither has Dench's delivery ever been so pointed — the humorlessness is brilliantly comic here. The imperious way this schoolmarm, this crone uses the term "Madam," for instance, is unforgettable, truly threatening and yet very, very funny. It's a vestige of the most Dostoevskian bits in the book, such as Barbara's disquisition on the ways in which lonely people are such terrible snobs about each other, "afraid that consorting with their own kind will compound their freakishness". Heller, Marber, and now Dench are all capable of insights that make you shudder and laugh at the same time.

And Dench by nature makes Barbara's emotionality believable without asking the audience for sympathy. There's always something welcome about Dench's refusal of easy connections with the audience, and here it moves her toward a bigger prize. Hollywood's legion of terminal starlets, desperate to be liked (and to be found as attractive as their granddaughters), are put to shame en masse by the fearlessness of Dench, who was over 70 when this movie was shot. In her hands, Barbara's story suggests how teensy a tragedy you can make of your emotional life. There are only a scattering of Shakespearean roles for women in this range, so Dench has essentially invented one. Though her story is outside the precincts of tragedy in a formal sense, Barbara acts with a tragic hero's combination of vigor and blindness. And Dench is so vivid that she turns this parched, underpaid professional into a confiding, self-defeating monster — Richard III in squalid middle-class miniature.

Cate Blanchett has always underwhelmed me, too, though in her case it's because she's so adaptable as to be forgettable while always appearing aglow with self-satisfaction, as if praise and stardom were hers by right, like income from a trust fund. Just as Dench's carefulness and reserve work for Barbara, however, Blanchett's sense of entitlement works for Sheba. It gives her a certain narcissism that explains why this likeable, intelligent woman would be such a dilettante — not just as an artist and teacher but in her private life as well. It helps enormously that director Richard Eyre shows us Sheba as Barbara sees her, in rapturous, silky slow motion while frankly preserving the insanity of her sexual caprice. (This is nailed down in the scene in which Steven breaks it off with Sheba, exactly as Barbara has spitefully predicted.)

Blanchett, a visual glory, draws us to Sheba yet does her share in dramatizing the perception that there are two, opposite ways of prolonging adolescent injudiciousness: by being totally out of touch with your feelings like Barbara, or by being too much in touch with them like Sheba. Barbara can't entirely repress her troubling emotions; they will out. But not all impulses are to be indulged equally, as Sheba learns startlingly late, that is, when her lover is younger than her daughter's boyfriend and in part only because the boy's mother pummels some sense into her and the police are alerted. (If one's superego is crucially underactive it will simply be externalized.)

After her exposure, Sheba leaves her house at Richard's request and hides from the tabloid press at Barbara's. In the third-act climax, Sheba, bored and uncertain to the point of distraction, puts on her old Siouxsie Sioux makeup, as if the answer lay behind her rather than before. She notices a gold star stuck to her foot and, in an expertly rhythmed sequence, goes from gold star to a crumpled journal page in the waste basket to a search for the full trove — Barbara's diaries, which reveal not only her feelings for Sheba and her plot to win her but the fact that it was she who informed on Sheba and Steven. When Barbara returns from a frugal outing at the supermarket, Sheba turns on her and Blanchett lets it rip, using vocal and emotional resources I had not previously suspected she possessed. It's a phenomenal scene, in which Blanchett not only extends herself as an actress but extends the character as well (Sheba finds some footing) at maximal dramatic pitch.

Sheba beats into Barbara, with tongue and fist, how Barbara's secret attachment and manipulativeness, her snideness and self-regard, appear to an observer whose disenchantment now equals her own. It is immensely, theatrically gratifying to have Sheba fling some home truths directly into the Gorgon's face, with a glass-splinter wit to match Barbara's own but an electrified physicality pushing it home. And the inadequacy of Barbara's responses jacks the comedy up that much further while deepening the pathos. When Sheba yells that she could get two years' prison as a result of Barbara's snitching, Marber has the older woman attempt to soothe her with, "They'll fly by! I'll visit every week." It's a miraculous high point, one of the crispest displays of pyrotechnical temperament in movie history and thoroughly dictated by the narrative structure. It provides as great a release for viewers as sex would have been for Barbara.

Worked up beyond the power of articulation, Sheba runs out with the incriminating diary among the press lurking outside Barbara's door. She cannot bring herself to retaliate, however, but can only roar, nightshade queen of the mosh pit one last time. Suddenly bewildered and self-conscious, Sheba goes back inside with the notebook still in hand. She attempts to speak plainly to Barbara — elucidating, for instance, the insignificance of a merely polite invitation she had made some time back — and can only marvel that Barbara can't take in even this much. Finally, with exhausted and pitying generosity, Sheba returns the diary to its mad author and leaves, the surest sign that this is naturalism and not melodrama. Naturalism in an ironic-tragic vein, because Sheba isn't well suited to the changes that will be necessary from here on out and Barbara is incapable of them. Sheba at last understands what's been going on but what will her spiritual indolence be like without her illusions of safety? As for Barbara, we can guess what she'll be up to with the next compliant young thing she comes across.

Last but not least, this is a great stride forward for Richard Eyre, who manages to keep the highly internal intrigue from becoming self-consciously "literary" (practically a miracle after his work on Iris [2001] and the literal-minded yet prancingly self-pleased Stage Beauty [2004]). In terms of movement and complexity, Eyre's work here can be spoken of in the same breath as Fred Schepisi's adaptation of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Working with the super-alert present-tense cinematographer Chris Menges and the film editors John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelen, Eyre moves the story along swiftly and yet never descends into moviemaking "flash." You may not be aware of his hand, but that's because he gets both the emotions and the irony breathlessly right. The story fairly absorbs you. And what he's done for these actresses deserves some kind of monument.

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About Alan Dale

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Nice review. I never saw this one; my wife went with a girl friend to see it and loved it, but also found it quite disturbing. (On that note, nice Siouxsie Sioux reference, too. :-D)

    Doesn’t it almost seem redundant at this point to say that Judi Dench turned in a masterful performance?

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Thanks for the comment, Michael. Disturbing to identify with such a character, but also disturbing that loving Siouxsie Sioux is now a sign of middle-age! Mais où sont les fucking neiges d’antan?

    As I tried to say in shorter compass in the review, Judi Dench’s performances may generally be masterful on a technical level but are not necessarily appropriate for the material she’s given. She has a distinctively commanding air onscreen but her personality is less notable for what it gives than for what it withholds. This makes her technical skill more apparent—what else is there to pay attention to?—but not very involving. She lacks the playfulness of many English theatrical crossovers, e.g., Edith Evans, Leslie Howard, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Wendy Hiller, Vivien Leigh, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Ian Richardson, a quality that makes me happy to watch them in anything. As a result, although directors will cast Dench in anything “classy,” her actual range is quite limited. Barbara in Notes on a Scandal is smack in the middle of that range so all the skill and even the reserve resonate for once, and in fact are highly amusing.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    I suppose that’s true. Dench’s best work has always called for theatricality, technically precision, and humorlessness–she’s easily the greatest Lady MacBeth I’ve ever seen–but I’m not sure it’s an accident that she sometimes spins comedy out of that dourness. Witness her brief turn as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Shakespeare in Love would be an exception to my comments about her, but it may be an exception that proves the rule. How could she NOT get laughs in those two great roles in The Importance of Being Earnest and Pride & Prejudice? You’d have to work at it. Perhaps the humorlessness was ideologically motivated, but that doesn’t make it more palatable.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Ideologically motivated? How do you mean?

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    British literary, theater, and film folk are generally pretty left-wing. I got the sense from the way Dench was presented as Lady Catherine in Pride & Prejudice–her delivery, the make-up, the lighting–that the intention was to show how truly horrid upper-class pride could be. That’s part of Austen’s intention, too, to make D’Arcy’s pride seem less repellent by contrast. But Lady Catherine’s pomposity in the book is laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s a huge loss to emphasize an ideological point that’s inherent in the character at the expense of the wit that is equally important.