10 Years: “Notes on a Scandal”

Time can do all sorts of things to a single film. Depending on how old you were when you first encountered it, it could be a familiar film, but one with new meaning. It could very well be a film that is beginning to show its age. Or, which seems to be the rarest result of time, it could be a film that feels just as it did the first time. Every emotion can be experienced and a newfound enjoyment, appreciation, or even love of the film can be had.

The Fox Searchlight Pictures film “Notes on a Scandal”, is a fascinating and disturbing look at obsession and the ways in which it can manifest.

This psychological thriller stars Judi Dench (upcoming “Tulip Fever”, “The Hollow Crown”), Cate Blanchett (upcoming “Weightless”, “Massive Attack: The Spoils”), Bill Nighy (upcoming “Their Finest”, “Dad’s Army”), Andrew Simpson (“Rebellion”, “Road Games”), Tom Georgeson (“Casualty”, “Electricity”), Michael Maloney (“Paranoid”, “The Five”), Juno Temple (“Drunk History”, “Vinyl”), Max Lewis (“The Portrait (Short 2014)”, “Trial & Retribution”), Joanna Scanlan (upcoming projects“Tulip Fever”, “No Offence”), Julia McKenzie (“The Casual Vacancy”, “Gangsta Granny”), and Shaun Parkes (“Hooten & the Lady”, “Silent Witness”).

The film was directed by Richard Eyre (“The Dresser”, “The Hollow Crown”) and written by Patrick Marber (“Love You More (Short 2008)”, “Asylum”). It is based on the novel “What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal” by Zoe Heller.

The film originally opened in a limited capacity on Dec. 25, 2006 and later a wide release on Jan. 26, 2007. It would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards, among numerous nominations and wins.

At this moment, not 24 hours later, I want to see this film again. It was that good. I was that involved and astounded by what I’d seen. It surprises me that I can be moved like that. When I saw this film a few years ago, probably after I finally read the book, I was blown away. Enough time had passed, and while I remembered quite a bit about the film, there were still significant gaps. That seems to be the situation here, or as I like to think of it, it just shows how well made this film is. It also shows the film’s staying power. Nothing in this film felt off or even the slightest bit dated, almost like that was a deliberate choice. Because of this, I could still go in and find each and every aspect intriguing. No matter how much I wanted to stop, I couldn’t. I was hooked. In some ways I had developed my own obsession. I needed to follow the events through to the bitter end, even though I knew exactly how it would play out. It’s almost like listening to the hauntingly beautiful score by Philip Glass (“The Hours”, “Taking Lives”). At the time of this wring, I’m on my second listen. I can’t help myself. I’m almost powerless.

Since the major theme of this film is obsession, it makes sense to view things differently. In this case, by looking at this film in a similar manner to how this film played out. With focus on the two female characters.

While I’ve know of Dench for some time now, I still feel that my exposure to her work is greatly limited. One would think that after a stellar performance in a film such as this, I’d want to rush out and watch as much of her work as I could. I have yet to do that. Because of that, I find that the fact that I absolutely love her in this film, carries with it a bit more importance. She’s a complicated woman. Dench’s character isn’t simply the “older woman”, she’s the main character. She’s at the heart of everything that goes on in this film. While she starts off being this strict, quiet veteran of education, it turns out, looks are very deceiving, which is where the fun begins. It’s also where you have to figure out how to feel for her. What do you feel for her? Marber, who wrote such a captivating and intelligent script, managed to not only paint Barbara Covett as this vicious, vindictive, and manipulative person, but one who’s in what’s arguably an all too familiar place. She’s got her job, her cat, her sister, and her diaries. That’s it. So, while we eventually grow to see her become this horrible person, who she’s always been on some level, we have a strong window into her personal life, and thus, are so easily able to feel for her. She’s a sympathetic character, who does deserve our sympathy, but also deserves our looks of hatred.

It’s these conflicting character traits that makes it so difficult to look away when Dench is on the screen. It’s also where the idea of obsession worms its way in. I personally find that this portrayal of obsession is left open to some interpretation. My view on the representation of obsession, is that’s it’s familiar to filmgoers, but also so drastically different. We’re not simply getting another “Single White Female” or “Swimfan”, and we’re nowhere near “Fatal Attraction” or even “Obsessed”. We’re seemingly getting a new breed. One that comes from a familiar desire. The longing for friendship. While Dench’s Barbara seems pretty content with her life as it is, she can’t help but notice the obvious. She hasn’t got much of a social life. Not having friends can do that. When she gets a new shot at that in Blanchett’s character, it’s something to be excited about. Someone wants to truly be her friend. However, Barbara’s want to have a friend and develop an honest relationship, slowly becomes obsession. She can’t help but push too much, and the sad thing is, I don’t think she actually views it as such. While a lot of Barbara’s actions are deliberate and calculated, I have trouble seeing it as anything other than misplaced. It’s all in the name of having a friend. Granted, during the film, and a scene of excellent acting and witty dialogue, a bit more is revealed about Barbara’s previous friendship with a woman named Jennifer Dodd. While that should make me question things a bit more, it certainly cast Dench’s character in a harsher light, I still come back to the same conclusion. She was seeking a friend, but was going about it the wrong way.

Like with Dench, Blanchett too turns in one incredible performance. If I were to try and rank her best roles, which I wouldn’t dream of doing, I’d find it damn impossible to choose. So many of them are terrific, and putting one above the other would not do. Also like Dench’s character, Blanchett’s Sheba Hart, is deeply flawed. She’s also lonely. That seems to be the catalyst for each woman. The reason they develop their own obsessions. Blanchett’s, however, takes on an a sicker and slightly more twisted form. She has an affair with a 15-year-old student. Even after being caught by Dench and seemingly trying to avoid the student, she finds she can’t. She’s too weak and will do anything and everything in order to see him, which in turn puts into motion other parts of the film’s story. While that’s the obsession, there’s still the matter of why? I can only guess. She’s got a family. She’s got a new job. She’s got a new friend, among others. She seems to be doing well, and yet, it’s not enough.

While I don’t feel I can fully understand why Blanchett’s Hart needed to seek out this young man, for which she deservedly sees her world fall apart and earns the title of horrible human being, it doesn’t stop me from finding her to be sympathetic. You learn so much about her. You see what she goes through on a day to day basis, at home and at school. Then, of course, there’s the hell that Dench puts her through. If you can’t feel a little something for her, then perhaps the issue lies with you, the viewer. Or, which is a valid thought, perhaps she’s not as much of a victim and unfortunate person as it seems. I guess even that’s going to have to be left up to the viewer.

Dench and Blanchett may provide the necessary story elements and complicated character’s to make this film all kinds of dramatic, there’s something just as important that needs mentioning. It may not be as up in the air as the two women’s motivations and figuring out where they stand on the scale of horrible human being, but it’s just as crucial. It’s Glass’ moving and mesmerizing score. Not only is it beautiful, in the film and out, but it’s strangely perfect. His use of instruments and arrangements gives this film all the needed emotional push. While the score never ceases to entertain and amaze me, it’s when the film takes on the more dramatic and thrilling bits that I perk up the most. Glass just found a way to make his score, and thus the film and character’s, seem a bit more dangerous at times. Specifically with Dench. She holds all the cards, and the score reflects this. Or, there’s the finale confrontation. When Blanchett slowly learns everything about Dench, the build up is gradual. It’s allowing tension to enter into things and a sense of danger creep back in as well. Eventually, everything just snaps! Even when the score isn’t ratcheting up tensions, be they sexual or otherwise, there’s always this alluring pull. You’re dragged from one scene to the next, and there’s always some sense of mystery, even when it’s just a typical day at school. I guess the score itself, is another character. A character that wants you to focus on the story it’s telling, which then will make it easier for you to react to the rest of the film and its many mysterious elements.

One thing I find truly fascinating, which seems to move past the film itself, is how this film centers on two women, but goes beyond that. It explores female relationships in ways that we don’t see too often. We especially don’t see them explored in this thoughtful and fleshed out way. Typically what you get is a mess of crazy antics, but nothing that can truly resonate with anyone. Here, because of the unlikable nature of both women, you’re already on a different level. You have to do a bit more work to find anything even slightly redeeming about them. Because of this, you get a rare opportunity to explore a non-traditional female friendship. Whatever you take away from this theme, will no doubt be different from everyone else, and that’s part of the beauty of this film and film in general.

Something else that can’t be ignore, but ties into this focus on two female characters, is just that. This was 10 years ago. While some progress has been made with dynamic female fronted films, of any genre, but some more successful than others, there still seems to be a lot more work left. I think of this film itself, and how I can’t really recall another film coming close to what this film achieved. Flawed female characters, yes, but they each usually take off in their own direction and achieve whatever amazing thing the story dictates. Perhaps I’m just not thinking of any other film or have managed to miss it, but seeing this film again is certainly reminding me that amazing stories can be told with women, even deeply flawed ones, at the forefront.


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