saw things so much clearer, once you... were in, my... rearview mirror.


Saturday, November 3, 2007

Notes on a Movie: "Notes on a Scandal"

"Notes on a Scandal” seems to waste no time in establishing its mood, character and intention. While it was seemingly marketed as a film about a scandalous affair between a teacher and her student, it is in fact less about the affair and more a reflection on the nature of loneliness. The film starts off strong, moving along this compelling path and had me hooked immediately - not surprisingly, given the cast - but sadly it shortly looses this clarity of purpose, betraying the bold course. As the opening credits roll, we're introduced to Barbra Covett (Judi Dench) and perhaps more importantly, her journals. Ms. Dench is at her most striking in Notes in that she looks and carries herself not like the bold, confident, and dignified lady we've become familiar with in movies like the Bond franchise films of late, but instead like a tired, decrepit, old hag. Barbra is not happy and it is no secret. It is through her cynical eyes and biting inner monologue - recorded in her journals and shared with us through voiceover - that we come to see the world she inhabits and scorns.

Barbara is a schoolteacher, or more appropriately a schoolmarm, or perhaps even more appropriately an old battle-ax, a term she uses self-referentially. She works at a public high school in England (although I don't believe it would be referred as public or high school in the UK), which she shows little respect or admiration for, believing it to be a shining example of social degradation. A new school year is beginning and with it comes a new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchette). Sheba is an obvious outcast in this world of mischievous blue-collar teens, or “pubescent proles” as Barbara so cruelly observes. She is young and faltering but akin to Ms. Dench, striking in appearance, though antithetically so. Ms. Blanchett - and thereby Ms. Covett - possesses an odd beauty that cannot be ignored in a place like this school. Instantaneously the fellow faculty, male and female alike, take interest and seek her attention. Of course this is not lost on our astute observer Barbara. Although resentful of the others and initially hesitant to admit it to herself, Barbara is soon caught up in Sheba just like everyone else.

Of course Barbara cannot see herself simply like everyone else, so she is convinced it is because she sees the subtle virtues nobody else can appreciate. Or so we are made to believe, albeit with scant evidence from her or otherwise. From the scenes of the very first encounters Barbara has with Sheba in school or at her home, there is little for us to admire in Sheba. Even more so, what little there is to admire is paradoxically resented or mocked by Barbara. At school Sheba is a poor authority figure; she dresses like a bohemian and carries herself like one of the students. Her disciplinary acts come off more like pleading than commanding; Barbara and Sheba are first introduced only after Barbara intrudes to break up a fight between two boys in Sheba's class. Sheba's home life is no more impressive. Barbara is invited over for lunch where she is turned off by the state of affairs. She is particularly disappointed by the age of Sheba's older husband (Bill Nighy), again paradoxically coming from her. She is further unimpressed by Sheba's children, the lax attitude towards discipline, and an admittedly ridiculous post-meal family dance. During this lunch we also learn that Sheba's son is mentally handicapped; the one thing someone might admire Sheba for handling with grace, but instead only invites pity and derision from Barbara.

Perhaps to her advantage later in the film, what Barbara does happen to overlook back in school is the attention paid to Sheba, not by the faculty, but by the students. It is in the aforementioned disciplinary scene that we are first made privy to this, but are as likely as Barbara to overlook it. The boys involved have had a spat and Barbara awkwardly forces them to reveal the cause of the fight. One of the students has made an explicit sexual comment about the teacher and another has been defending her honor. An honor that in fact deserves no defense; Sheba has been having an affair with one of her teenage students. When Barbara finally discovers this dirty secret, its not through Sheba. Less from feeling betrayed than seeing an opportunity to take control of Sheba, Barbara uses this knowledge to effectively blackmail her.

This is where Notes begins to fall into the trappings of a predictable thriller and I began to loose interest. Up to this point we are treated to a provocative and insightful look into the mind of a bitter old woman, a reflection on the nature of loneliness. For the first half of the film, Barbara's commentary, though often callous and cruel, evokes an empathetic response from the viewer. While we cannot forgive some of her observations, such as those regarding Sheba's family or her co-workers back at school, we can understand where she is coming from. Have we not ourselves thought bitterly in time of loneliness or out of jealousy? Still, sometimes her observations can be almost downright insightful or at least entertaining and bold, "It’s a peculiar trait of the privileged - immediate incautious intimacy - but Sheba went well beyond the tendencies of her class, she was utterly candid. A novice confessing to the mother superior." While other moments draw our sympathy and serve to dismantle Barbara's self proclaimed superiority and power. One example is right after Barbara is invited to this pivotal lunch, she proclaims, "Bliss, a merry flag on the arctic wilderness of my calendar. One must make an effort when one receives an invitation. The art of it is seeming not to." Later at the lunch Sheba's daughter, dressed down like the rest of the family, innocently asks, "Are you going somewhere? You're all poshed up!"

That’s not to say that the affair and Barbra’s use of it to her advantage aren’t important or interesting plot points. They are of course the focal points of the film about which the plot turns, but the depth of those actions is shortchanged. What could drive this beautiful woman with a comfortable life and family to do such a thing? What could drive this old woman to take advantage of this situation? These are important questions which are only half addressed. Furthermore, where do these feelings of loneliness stem from; how do people find themselves or let themselves get into such a lonely state? In the case of Barbara this is perhaps clear enough. While she is the narrator of this tale, it is not to us she is speaking - as if to teach us a lesson or to convert us to her side. No, it is made clear from her own first words in the film that, while others may seek to share their inner secrets with her – what she herself would admit to be a grave mistake - she does nothing of the kind with anyone. The only friends of Barbra Covett are her journals, i.e. herself. In the end, her loneliness is perhaps her own fault; she never seeks companionship in earnest. As for Sheba, are we simply to dismiss her actions as those of an inconsiderate and bored bourgeois trophy wife?

Given its shortcomings, in the end Notes is still worth a watch if for nothing else but to see two brilliant women play against each other on the screen. Not to mention the excellent Phillip Glass soundtrack, which keeps you tense from start to finish. The fact that the movie runs away into a predictable thriller may also have been excused - similar the descent in the second half of Nabokov's Lolita, where the novel becomes tiresome. Its as if the pace of the work itself mimics its plot. But it's not just that the film becomes predictable and tired in the end, it's more disappointing that a film with so much promise would take the safe road to its conclusion. Notes never goes as far as to really punish its misguided 'morally' loose characters for their infelicities or take the "hey, who's to judge" stance, which I honestly would have preferred. By the closing scene of the movie, Barbara is stereotypically vilified as a crazy, lesbian, control freak still on the prowl - having been shed of the sympathetic or empathetic qualities the script worked so hard to establish in the first place. Sheba's character is likewise flattened by the end, having "learned her lesson", returning to her family and receiving a legal slap on the wrist of sorts. So after a lot of moping, crying, plotting and raving, what’s the moral of this story? Statutory rape is bad - but you'll be forgiven - and stay away from batty old ladies cause they're crazy lesbians.

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