23 August, 2010

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Dench does demented

Winner of the European Film Academy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, Dame Judi Dench astonished audiences in 2006 with this, one of her darkest films.

Guess what? Another film I enjoyed. The difference this time being that it was one of a collection that was recently purchased by my good lady. Our taste in films differs quite a bit from time to time and having seen the cover of the DVD and the dreaded words ‘Starring Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett’ I thought I’d be in for an evening of unbridled chick-flickery.

Happily, I turned out to be wrong – which is, of course, highly unusual. Anyway, moving quickly on – this is a real gem of a film from director Richard Eyre (Stage Beauty (2004), The Absence of War (1995)). It’s one of those that will have you giggling at the black and acerbic one-liners and remarks as Barbara Covett (Dench) writes her diary and at the next turn getting a real tingle in your spine as you realize just exactly what she’s up to. The diary narrative is done in voice-over by Dench, who strikes the tone of just the right amount of measured insanity . Dame Judi is famous for playing a variety of roles – hard woman, quaint ageing lady, royalty – and has even appeared in a rather average sitcom on the BBC, but as far as I can remember, this is the first time I have seen her playing a part as complex as this. She is a retirement-age closet lesbian living alone except for a cat – and a chain-smoking, scheming, manipulative woman trapped in her own bitter loneliness. As John Cooper-Clarke once said: “Deliciously, deliciously deranged”.

A teacher with a reputation for being uncompromising and a tough disciplinarian, she is held in high esteem at the Islington school where she works. She at first dismisses Sheba Hart (Blanchett) as a flighty, eager-to-please teacher with wishy-washy politics and a casual attitude. Despite her apparent dislike for her, she rescues Sheba when a classroom fight leaves her unable to control her students. Sheba invites her to a family lunch to thank her, and their friendship grows. It becomes apparent quite quickly that Barbara’s affection for Sheba is more than just merely platonic, unbeknown to anyone at first, except for Barbara and her diary. She very quickly becomes a big part of the lives of Sheba, her husband Richard (a superb Bill Nighy) and their kids.

This cosy relationship takes a turn for the worst when Barbara slips out of a school play for a breath of fresh air and sees Sheba involved in a game of “hide the sausage” with one of the fifteen-year-old male students in a mobile classroom. Barbara soon sees this as the perfect opportunity to win a huge advantage over Sheba, and to bring her closer. She demands a meeting, telling Sheba what she’s seen and promises not to tell anyone – it’ll be “their little secret” – and demands that Sheba end the relationship straight away. Of course, it wouldn’t be a very long film if she did, but I kind of wished she had and saved herself the full horror of what awaited her.

That’s about all I can say without giving too much of the plot away. There are some neat little twists and some powerful (and often disturbing) acting in this film. It’s very well paced and all the little bits – the black humour, the spartan musical score and the locations – all fit together extremely well. My favourite bit? When Barbara goes to Sheba’s house after her cat is put down at the vet’s. If that doesn’t leave you with your mouth open, you should probably switch it off and go and do something else. Dame Judi, please do more of this. In the nicest possible way, you are a world-class nutter.

Awards: Click here for details.

92 mins. In English and French.

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