Notes on a Scandal doesn’t quite live up to its promise
Notes on a Scandal arrives in a prestigious-looking package. But the actual contents may be cause for disappointment and even dismay.
The basic ingredients may sound more or less irresistible—a cast headed by Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett in particular, but also a “controversial” story adapted from a novel by Zoe Heller, a score by Philip Glass, photography by the gifted Chris Menges, and production by the Brit theatrical team of Richard Eyre (direction) and Patrick Marber (screenplay).
But what gets delivered onscreen is a kind of mean-spirited mishmash, an unachieved merger of lurid soap opera and low-key psycho-thriller. Dench and Blanchett, both of whom are nominated for Oscars, do fairly decent work, but neither of them really has a chance to pull the film out of its mediocre brand of seriousness.
The central action revolves around spinster schoolteacher Barbara (Dench), who falls in love with younger teacher Sheba (Blanchett). The younger teacher is married with kids, but also finds herself plunging into a sexual relationship with one of her students, 15-year-old Steven (Andrew Simpson). The older teacher discovers this forbidden liaison and tries, crazily and pathetically, to use it as a means of intensifying her supposed bond with Sheba. And Sheba, frantically, tries to comply.
In Heller’s novel, all of this is presented through Barbara’s eyes. But while the film has some voice-over narration from that character, its presentation inevitably brings several other characters into the emotional foreground. Consequently, the Eyre-Marber version puts far more on the table, morally and emotionally, than it is able to adequately address. And so much the worse, perhaps, when one of those characters is played by a Cate Blanchett.
There is small consolation in the film’s insistence that all of the key characters, including the 15-year-old, are in some way obsessive liars and self-deceivers. And the facile, generically ominous Philip Glass score is no help at all.