Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Notes on a Scandal

"Notes on a Scandal" (Richard Eyre, 2006) There's a sub-category of movies that always sends K. and I into fits of giggles. It started when we saw (take a breath) Kenneth Branagh's film of Francis Ford Coppola's production of "Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein.'" (whew!) We'd enjoyed Coppola's "Bram Stoker's 'Dracula,'" and liked Branagh's earlier films. But something about this "Frankenstein" went seriously off-the-rails. It seemed like every performance was delivered at fever-pitch (except for John Cleese, who drastically underplayed to avoid Python-esque associations), Branagh's direction was a combination of Brian DePalma swoop-and-carousel moves and Michael Bay "shudder-shots," and Brian Doyle's score was dialed up "to 11." After awhile, she and I turned to each other with our eyes wide, and I said "I think everybody in this movie needs a good night's sleep!" and from then on, we couldn't take the movie seriously anymore.

Everybody in "Notes on a Scandal" needs a good night's sleep. It's a bit like "Snow White" done as an urban British drama. Except "Snow" isn't quite as pure. Here's the gist: Judi Dench plays Barbara, an embittered veteran school teacher, who develops a fixation on Bathsheba (Cate Blanchett), a new art-teacher in school. Sheba, as she's know, begins an affair with one of her young students, which becomes known to Barbara quite early on. Barbara then devises a scheme to blackmail a relationship with Sheba and drive a wedge between her and her family, with the aim of having Sheba for herself. It's a joy (and a scary thing) to see Judi Dench turn on the after-burners and go into full "battle-axe" mode. Her Barbara is the creepiest creation since Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, with the added element of a pathetic (calculated?) vulnerability, and she's matched by Blanchett's distracted portrayal of the flibbertigibbet Sheba. There's one scene where both women go into an acting fever-pitch and its a bit like watching the performances fuse into one that's fascinating to watch, but makes you want to pull the "Emergency Stop" cord. And the hysteria is pushed at every hint of motion by Philip Glass' galloping score, even when it seems entirely gratuitous. It makes you want to back away slowly, get behind a locked door...and get a good night's sleep.

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