Notes on a Scandal is an oddity, a bizarre mix of melodrama, twisted comedy and thriller. Instead of writing ‘mix of’ like I did in the last sentence, I would often have written ‘caught between’, implying that it doesn’t know which kind of film it wants to be, and that it is muddled as a result. Fortunately, that isn’t true; Marber, Eyre, Dench and everyone else involved knew exactly what they were doing as they spun giddily through tonal shifts, inducing head-shaking one minute and laughter the next. It’s a strange feeling to walk out of a movie that, on the surface, seemed like such a mess, but feel satisfied because you know that’s what they meant to do. Just how well did it work, though?
I saw the trailer for this about four times before actually going to see it. Once was enough to put me off completely. It was a typical ‘give away the whole plot, and most of the best bits’ trailer – afterwards, I always think ‘Okay, I don’t need to see that now’. However, thanks to Cale’s positive review I sought it out, and was glad I did. The story is pure middle-class pulp: (underage) sex, bored married life, hints of lesbianism, ulterior motives… tick all the boxes, it’s all there. I imagine the book is an entertaining but completely forgettable romp, and it seems like the filmmakers were aware of that and, in an effort to make it a more interesting movie, decided to do a few things that couldn’t be done on the page.
One such thing is to employ Judi Dench in the main role as Barbara Covett, a history-teaching spinster who, with her stone-faced demeanour and acerbic wit, acts as a deliciously enjoyable (and completely untrustworthy) narrator. From the film’s opening, with her schoolyard deconstruction and casually bitter remarks, I was hooked. Her performance remains a treat throughout. Every line is delivered with appropriate timing, and every beat rests exactly as long as it should. For the most part, her face remains weathered yet defiant, the corners of her mouth pointed permanently at the ground; however, as revealed in her diary scribblings, this outward indifference conceals a storm of confused emotions, and as the film goes on they spill out more and more. I don’t want this review to turn into a love letter, but Dench’s command of the character is of the highest order: we know she’s a barking lunatic, and the character developments are expected, yet we rejoice in her presence. Perhaps it’s precisely because Barbara is the kind of person we would studiously avoid in real life that we’re enthralled by her. And somehow, Dench makes us feel sorry for her, and never resorts to car-crash ‘can’t look away’ cheap tactics to get our attention.
Needless to say, the film suffers when she isn’t on screen. Blanchett is good as always, but her “bourgeois bohemia” art teacher just isn’t as fascinating a character. Still, her third act meltdown is a jarring and highly amusing sight from this always refined performer. Then there’s her twenty-years-older husband, a well-written supporting character that, in scenes of high drama, Nighy brazenly overplays until drool flies from his mouth. Everyone in the audience laughed as he screamed at his wife, and I’m convinced that’s exactly what he was going for. Same goes for the stroppy daughter whose previously detached language turns Shakespearean after she learns of her mother’s infidelities; the obese colleague who is the butt of several cruel jokes (in one of the film’s best moments, watch Dench’s and Blanchett’s reactions to her announcement of her pregnancy); and the headmaster who delivers his accusations with considerable relish. Everyone’s in on the joke, and we laugh along with them.
What’s really odd is that this film contains moments of genuine insight, mostly surrounding the meaning of Barbara’s less-than-charmed life. Another writer-director team might have made more of that, seeking to make a film that would leave a lasting impression rather than something uniquely enjoyable but ultimately incomplete. I’m not complaining – I lapped up every minute – but I can’t throw all my weight behind Notes on a Scandal because it is only the sum of its parts. Dench is remarkable, and everyone else does their job competently, but that’s it. There’s not really anything to pore over afterwards; it was all up there on the screen. Plus the film’s origins seem to have held it back. Still, see it for Dench and Dench alone – she’s pretty much as good as we’ll get.