Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Notes on a Scandal

            On this blog we generally try, with any given film, not to attempt to unravel more than maybe one half of one percent of the issues and questions that the film may raise.  This restriction sometimes hurts, especially with a picture like Notes on a Scandal that could probably support a 150 page essay on its own.  This motion picture is so meticulously planned, so well storyboarded, and so unusually rich both visually and verbally that it’s painful to pick and choose.  (Of course, it’s also incoherent and preposterous in places.  So be it.)  Here I’d like to rope off two different scenes that feature the same exact surprising revelation about a character.  One comes quite early on in the picture, the other much later.  Let’s get some background.

            Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett is well cast in the role, especially in the way her habitually loose, floppy clothes hang off her tall, lanky body; “Bash” to her husband) is new to teaching, beginning her first year in the art department at St. George’s School.  In her thirties, she’s begun a scandalous forbidden affair with her fifteen year old student Connolly (Andrew Simpson).  In the early scene I’d like to glance at here a much older, psychotic, delusional veteran teacher named Barbara Covett (Judi Dench does what she can with the hopeless role) finds out about the affair; in the later scene her much older husband Richard (the great actor Bill Nighy in a sensational performance) finds out. 
            Barbara is a lonely, bitter, misanthropic woman.  Her diary musings, given to us in great supply throughout the movie via voiceover narration, show her to be vain, condescending, manipulative, hateful, sneering, and a predator.  (We learn at the very end that a teacher, now gone, with whom she had a friendship – Jennifer Dodd – actually hit her with a restraining order.)  She is immediately taken with Sheba and watches her closely from a distance, making endless comments in her diary.  (In fact one of her diary entries opens the film – she remarks that her diary is the only thing to whom she trusts her secrets!)

            Barbara sees Sheba as “the wispy novice” who is “artfully disheveled” and that “they flock to her, even limp little Brian” (Brian being a meek, shy teacher who will play a key role later).  Of Richard, he’s a “crumbling patriarch”.  Their Down’s Syndrome child is a “court jester”.  When the family does some (admittedly trippy) dancing after dinner, this is “Bourgeoisie Bohemia.”  Yet, her sarcasm and rapier hate also betray an understanding of people born of deep and long experience – at coffee, when a fellow teacher remarks to Sheba and Barbara, “I’ve got an announcement,” Barbara says “You’re leaving St. George’s” and when the teacher says no, she then offers “Oh, then you’re pregnant,” which is correct.  She’s obviously seen the scene many times before.
            Barbara and Sheba first meet when the younger teacher is unable to stop a fight that breaks out in class between Connolly and Davis; Barbara rushes in to help.  She remarks that the boys are “little towers of testosterone”.  The incident gives her an opportunity to establish a beachhead with Sheba, a foundation for a friendship whose motives, we suspect, are not entirely sane or healthy. 

            Here’s how she finds out about Sheba and young Connolly- Sheba doesn’t show up for the school Christmas concert, so Barbara goes searching for her.  Seeing the lights on (it’s evening) in the art room, she proceeds to investigate. Of course she finds her – through a window she’s able to clearly see Sheba and Connolly having sex inside.  (In fact, the sighting is way too easy, which is a flaw in the film.  Anyone could have happened by and spotted the wrongdoing.)

            By this point we’ve gotten the feeling that Barbara is tough as nails and that very little in going to surprise or shock her, which makes the end of this scene remarkable.  The faces of the two women are caught in expressions that achieve what I’m tempted to call a kind of cinematic miracle.  Dench, Blanchett, director Richard Eyre and cinematographer Chris Menges all team up to create something extraordinarily powerful.  As Connolly sneaks away, Sheba has a kind of joyous naughty girl expression on her face that is worth twenty pages of dialogue.  Similarly, as Connolly comes out of the building and walks off, Barbara looks after him with a stare of incredulity that is absolutely priceless.  Right here – in just this one clip of film – the movie justifies itself as a piece of cinematic art many times over. 
            After cutting to Barbara, shell shocked, alone, in her apartment later that same night Eyre cuts quickly to Sheba in a supermarket parking lot with her mentally disabled boy, moving their groceries from the shopping cart to their vehicle.  Barbara calls her.  The comparison of the shots of the two women on the phone with each other is instructive – the older, alone, in her tidy apartment, holding the cordless phone in her hand exactly as well she might have done with a cordless rotary phone fifty years ago, the younger, with her child, balancing the cell phone on her shoulder, multi tasking. 
            Caught red handed, Sheba can do nothing but agree to a meeting.
            Eyre’s style here is very classically oriented – straight cuts, plenty of shot-reverse shot technique, commentative music (a score with no percussion by Phillip Glass that sets the mood).  As Barbara questions Sheba about the affair Sheba opens up in a way that she will not when, later, her husband finds out about the dalliance in a much more explosive scene.  (Keep in mind that Barbara has her own ulterior motives, selfish and personal, that I’m not getting into here with any depth –she manipulates the situation to her advantage, to suit her own purposes.  Sheba explains that Connolly came to her seeking help with his drawing (as it turns out almost everything of importance that Connolly tells Sheba turns out to be a calculating lie) and that one thing led to another.  She says it was “innocent”.  (Interestingly enough, later, when she is trying to explain it all to her husband, she claims the reverse.)  She sends him away but he “refused to accept it” and kept coming back. 

            But here’s the rub – she tells Barbara that it began to feel like their secret, and secrets are seductive.  While she knew it was all wrong, she says she began to feel “entitled”.  It asked her, Why shouldn’t you be bad?  You’ve earned the right (by being a good wife, loving mother, etc.) – why shouldn’t you transgress a little?  And so the bad girl impulse that we glimpsed on her face a little earlier comes around full circle.  
            And yet later, when she has the opportunity to explain the affair to her husband, all she can do is stammer that she doesn’t know why she did it.  We can have a field day with this, of course, and all the circumstances are not identical.  For example, Barbara found out about the affair entirely on her own, by being a peeping Tom, whereas Richard finds out because Connolly’s mother bursts into the house and throws Sheba a beating (in turn, she has found out about the affair through the grapevine – Barbara planted the rumor with the whiney, wimpy Brian a few days before and waited for it to spread).

            This film, as I say, is very rich and abnormally well planned.  Very careful attention has to be paid in order to catch numerous slices of important dialogue and critical visual information.  Too, a lot of the supporting players are very strong – I have to conclude that Eyre is very strong with actors.  Phil Davis, Michael Maloney, Stephen Kennedy and Derbhle Crotty are all superb.  Bill Nighy absolutely steals the picture.  (Watch the scene in which Barbara is trying to get Sheba to come to the vet with her while Sheba’s family is waiting for her in the car, to go to Ben’s play!)  I guess what stimulates me to include it here is the different ways Sheba reacts to Barbara’s and to Richard’s learning of her taboo affair.  As an overall example of the various departments of the cinema it ain’t too bad, either.

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