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Notes on a Scandal: Deliciously Vicious

January 5, 2007

The British have a special knack for making awfulness engaging. From Shakespeare’s Richard III to Mike Leigh’s Naked to Steve Coogan’s “I’m Alan Partridge,” there is a rich English tradition of making great art out of unapologetically malevolent protagonists. The latest entry into the genre is Notes on a Scandal, directed by Richard Eyre, written by Patrick Marber (Closer) and based on a novel by Zoe Heller.

Notes on a Scandal stars Judi Dench as Barbara Covett, a bitter veteran of decades of teaching history at a lower-class London school. Cate Blanchett plays Sheba, a new art teacher who Barbara instantly loathes for her “trendy politics” and “abhorrent jacket.” But Barbara, who lives alone, changes her tune when Sheba extends an offer of friendship. When Barbara discovers that Sheba is having an affair with a 15-year-old student, her first impulse is to report her to the headmaster, but she quickly has a better idea: she can use her knowledge of the dalliance to blackmail Sheba into being her best friend.

The premise only begins to suggest the delicious viciousness of Dench’s character. Like so many great villain-heroes before her, Barbara’s most engaging trait is her wit. In her diary–which doubles as the narration for the film–Barbara records her pitch-black vision of humanity. Sheba’s son Ben, who has Down’s syndrome, is “a somewhat tiresome court jester” and Sheba is attracted to her teenage lover out of a misguided sense of class envy, “as if he were a monkey who strolled out of the rainforest and asked for a gin and tonic.” The diary is also a record of Barbara’s loneliness: when Sheba invites Barbara for Sunday lunch with her family, “It is a merry flag on the arctic wilderness of my calendar.” Barbara writes that she and Sheba share a deep bond because she believes they share “an ability to see through the quotidian awfulness of things.”

Somehow, Barbara is sympathetic. It’s not her loneliness that does it; I found her solitude more pitable than empathetic. And it’s not her devotion to her cat, although her tears over her pet’s illness do suggest a kernel of humanity in Barbara’s abysmal soul. But neither of those traits are sufficient, I think, for keeping us engaged with Barbara throughout a two-hour movie. The secret to our attraction to Barbara–and other similarly vile protagonists–is that we trust her.

Unlike the characters who orbit around her, who say and do things to please and appease others, Barbara has no desire to be liked. Because she feels no compassion for her fellow man, she can be trusted to give it to us straight and act in a consistent manner. In this way, her viciousness comes off as a strength, while everyone else’s prevarications and politeness–especially Sheba’s–come off as weakness. There’s something liberating in imagining ourselves in her shoes, freed from the social imperative to make nice.

As the movie progresses, however, it becomes clear that not even Barbara’s sharp words are to be trusted. She wants to believe that she’s chosen her solitude because no one is perfect enough to be worthy of her love, but it’s all an act. When Barbara’s cat dies, and Sheba chooses to go to her son’s play over consoling her friend, Barbara becomes insanely jealous and resentful. “People like Sheba think they know the long drip drip of solitude,” she narrates while taking a long bath. “She has no idea what it is like to construct an entire weekend out of a trip to the laundrette.” Later we find out that Barbara has interpreted a passing mention to a visit in France as an invitation to join Sheba and her family on summer vacation. But her descent into jealousy and unreliability is eventually what makes this monster human. Who hasn’t had a crush whose every word, whose every endorsement and casual touch we excavate for some proof that our beloved might love us back?

Barbara’s obsession with Sheba leads to the movie’s most visceral moments; I found myself turning away from the screen when Barbara asks Sheba, a little too forcefully, for permission to stroke her arm. When Sheba spends a night at Barbara’s house, Barbara stands over her sleeping body–and I feared for what she would do next. But one gets the sense that she isn’t so much a lesbian as somebody who desperately hungers for some kind of human contact. At one point, she recalls how “the accidental brush of a bus conductor’s hand sends a shiver straight to your groin.”

No review of Notes on a Scandal would be complete without making a mention of its score by Phillip Glass. Glass brings the same collection of synthesizers, winds, strings and brass that he used for the haunting score to Martin Scorsese’s Kundun. The score plays nearly without interruption through the movie’s 98 minutes, creating a mood of escalating hysteria that gives the movie the quality of a fever-dream. And it probably goes without saying that Dench and Blanchett, two of the very best actresses alive, give psychologically acute, nearly flawless performances. (Extra points are due Dench, who can suggest an array of emotions through subtle shifts in her character’s ever-present frown.) Notes on a Scandal is probably the most gorgeously written movie I’ve seen this year; Marber’s penchant for the material comes as no surprise given that he is a long-time collaborator with Steve Coogan.

Impeccably acted, beautifully written, vividly scored–and a whole lot of fun, to boot–Notes on a Scandal is a masterpiece of nastiness.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Emilia permalink
    July 12, 2007 6:57 pm

    I was looking for information to write about “Notes on a Scandal,” and came across your blog. Your write very well! I like your accuracy with words.


  2. June 21, 2012 8:18 pm

    I just saw the movie and can’t really get a grip on why the focal point even after the illicit affair is Barbara and not the disgusting thing that Sheba did. The scene where Sheba basically blames Barbara for having to go to jail…..really? It’s Barbara’s fault that Sheba seduced and slept with a 15 yr. old. How twisted is that? Yes Barbara is deceptive and manipulative but every other person in the movie is more manipulative and deceptive than her.


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