January 18, 2007

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Notes on a Scandal (R)
Judi Dench gives a smart yet shiver-inducing performance as a woman desperate for friendship (and more) with a younger woman and desperate in how she tries to get it in Notes on a Scandal.

Barbara Covett (Dench) is a history teacher at a school filled with middling-to-poor students in a dull part of town. A single woman, she has cats but few friends, a meticulous diary system but not a whole lot worth writing down. That is until Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), an art teacher, shows up at school. Hart is lovely — all gold hair and pale skin — and Barbara is enamored. She waits, however, for all the other teachers to attempt to befriend Sheba before she makes a move. Sheba is so inexperienced with the kids and Barbara steps in once to help her break up two fighting boys. The women go for coffee and Sheba invites Barbara over for Sunday lunch with the family. Barbara — who, as she explains in her diary (which we hear via voiceover), has constructed whole weekends around trips to the laundromat — sits almost detached from the event, watching Sheba, her teenage daughter, her son who has Down’s Syndrome and her older husband interact. Later Sheba opens up to Barbara about her ennui, a sort of wishy-washiness she feels in large part because so much of her recent life has been spent in intense mothering to her disabled son. Barbara, desperate for any crack that might show her the way into Sheba’s inner circle decides this confidence Sheba has shared makes them close friends. So close that when Sheba doesn’t show up for a school concert, Barbara goes looking for her, causing her to find out that Sheba has made another “close friend” at the school.

Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson) might be a “mature” 15 as Sheba later tries to explain but he is a mere 15 when, after a brief flirtation, they begin an affair. Steven is having a bit of schoolboy fun (as he tells Sheba) and she is working out her sadness over a lost youth. They are both, of course, nuts, especially for thinking that in the tinder box of a school environment their affair would stay secret. Barbara is at first hurt by what she sees almost as Sheba cheating on her (Barbara after all had hoped to be the alternative to Sheba’s marriage) but then she sees the affair as an emotional whip. She insinuates herself into Sheba’s life and grabs hold of the younger woman (figuratively but occasionally physically in small ways) so as to not allow herself to be shaken off. Barbara tries to convince Sheba to end the affair but Sheba doesn’t, a fact that Barbara uses to even greater advantage.

The plot might be ripped from headlines fare but it’s the performances that make this movie such an engrossing treat — like a novel that can be read in one sitting. Blanchett’s Sheba is the perfect amount of flaky and family girl, artsy and yuppie. She presents an embarrassing and pathetic variation of the middle-aged-man’s affair with a secretary. The carelessness of her character is tempered by occasional notes of actual humanity, a perfect balance to keep Sheba from becoming either a monster or a cartoon.

Dench’s performance, of course, is the one that really steals the show. She gives us an initial impression of a sensible if battle-hardened woman whose long solitude has left her unable to have casual friendships; she is, as one former friend describes her, “intense” or completely disinterested, there is no middle ground. In this portrait of a woman fond of women before such a thing was openly allowed, we get the sense that years of hiding emotions has only made them strengthen and warp. Dench’s portrayal of a person damaged by loneliness is funny at times, chilling at others. B+

Rated R for language and some aberrant sexual content. Directed by Richard Eyre and written by Patrick Marber from a novel by Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal is an hour and 32 minutes long and is distributed by Fox Searchlight in limited release. The movie is scheduled for a run at Wilton Town Hall Theatre on Feb. 9.