“Notes on a Scandal” is about as visually uninventive as “Little Children” but more successful with trashy bored infidelity. “Scandal” is Oscar-competing with “Little Children” for Actress and Adapted Screenplay, while also nominated for Score and Supporting Actress. It isn’t quite as trashy as I’d like it to be but still wicked fun. Late in it, Cate Blanchett tells her obsessed secret admirer “You don’t love me. You don’t even like me.” These are among the truest words ever spoken about infatuation: sometimes it has nothing to do with respect.
The admirer is Judi Dench, a bitter, world-hating old maid of a battle ax, who soldiers on hatefully at a British public school. (But they call them private schools over there – those crazy Brits!) Dame Judi is endearing the way all “I hate everyone especially myself” types can be endearing. She gradually goes all “Strangers on a Train,” sans murder, when she falls for the loopy new art teacher played by Cate. When Dench finds out that Cate is having a naughty-naughty with an underage boy (Andrew Simpson), she finds a way of wiggling her way into the younger woman’s life. Dench plays a character named “Covett” while Cate plays one named “Sheba.” Sweet.
Dench is good, mean, and takes real pleasure in biting off words like they were the limbs of fallen foes. Blanchett matches her step-for-step, capturing precisely the amount of strong personality and ‘fraidy-cat sexiness that can provoke obsession. Third billing goes to Bill Nighy, an British character who’s rapidly become That Guy I Like Seeing Everywhere, as Cate’s old-ass husband. He would seem a saint if it didn’t crop up that he’d left a previous marriage to get-it-on with his student Cate, who was 20 at the time. “Notes on a Scandal” never reduces its characters to types, and this is no more apparent than Blanchett’s underage lover. At times he borders on calculating – that he lies is not nearly as revealing as the blankness he uses when caught in a lie – but at the same time we understand why he is legally a victim.
The overwrought score by Philip Glass is perhaps not overwrought enough and Richard Eyre’s direction is too tasteful. Still, Patrick Marber’s (“Closer”) script is tight, allowing the characters to be completely fleshed-out, yet occasionally caricatures. More importantly, it sees them sympathetically but without apology. You can’t forgive the lonely old maid or the insecure woman tumbling unfulfilled into middle-age or the underage Romeo, but you can’t quite blame them either – unless you’re so insecure in your marriage that you have to be self-righteous and boring. Also, Marber and Eyre let not one but two men descend into spit-flying furors. They’re the cuckolded husband and the schoolmaster (Michael Maloney, who spent most of the ‘90s trying to kill Kenneth Branagh).
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