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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
January 19, 2007

Evenings Out

Ripped from the tabloids

Although it has top talent, ‘Scandal’ is marred by stereotypes and a voiceover

Notes on a Scandal comes with a very high pedigree. For starters, it has two Oscar-winning divas, Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, as the headliners. The screenplay was adapted from the Zoe Heller novel by Patrick Marber, whose play and screenplay of Closer was a modern-day Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It features a score by post-modern maestro Philip Glass and is produced by one of the hardest working producers in Hollywood, the out Scott Rudin.

Yet, the film’s subject matter, seen so often these days in news headlines and tabloid titillations, is more suited to a movie-of-the-week--except then we’d have to watch Victoria Principal and Judith Light take a stab at the two leading roles. This may not be the worst thing, since Dench and Blanchett are wasted here and they have turned in far more substantial performances elsewhere.

The story involves an unorthodox love triangle to be sure. Barbara, a staunch spinster and deeply repressed lesbian, takes a fancy to the younger Sheba, a Bohemian pottery teacher, who in turn takes an intensely physical fancy to a fifteen-year-old student, Steven. Everyone has a secret, which makes for some intense drama.

Barbara finds Steven and Sheba having sex at school one day--even Mary Kay Letourneau wasn’t that desperate or stupid. Rather than expose this, she decides to use it to make Sheba love her in return.

Sheba’s tale is further complicated by her dull marriage, her rebelling teenage daughter and her Down’s syndrome-afflicted son. She uses these familial vicissitudes as an excuse to go at it with Steven like a prom queen with the star quarterback.

Eventually, when Barbara realizes that Sheba has no intentions of spending the rest of their lives on Golden Pond, she lashes out and coyly releases the secret. The rest of the story is obvious: Sheba is prosecuted, Sheba realizes that Barbara is a vengeful, bitter old woman, Sheba’s family is in shambles, Steven’s family is in shock, and Steven bails on his older-woman sex kitten because the situation is no longer fun.

The film isn’t bad. It’s simply not as good as it could have been, nor as good as some critics have made it out to be.

The film’s two biggest downfalls are the use of Barbara’s voiceover as she writes in her diary about this sordid affair, and that both women are not really likable or sympathetic. Who really cares if Barbara gets Sheba or if Sheba is saved from jail, when both characters are played with a detachment and coldness that is bizarre at times.

I read the screenplay before seeing the film and Marber’s writing worked well on paper. However, on screen the voiceover--more than 25 percent of the dialogue--becomes annoying and interferes with the audience caring about the characters. Every time we come close to getting involved in the film, the voiceover pulls us away and makes us wallow in Barbara’s bitterness and repression. It’s not a good cinematic strategy to get the audience sucked in, especially given that these people are hard to like.

The acting is strong overall but Dench and Blanchett are capable of so much more. The voiceover makes their acting lazy in some ways, because it is so detailed, so overt, so without subtlety that nothing is left to the audience’s imagination. The actors don’t really have to act because, wait, the voiceover will tell us what they normally would have to convey through their acting.

As Sheba’s conflicted husband, Bill Nighy turns in another strong and subtle performance. It is Andrew Simpson as the horny Steven who steals the film. His nonchalance, his raw sexuality and his stark portrayal of an adolescent on a journey of sexual discovery comes across as the most real thing on the screen. He deserves a better film to really make him shine.

Here’s the biggest issue with Notes on a Scandal, although it’s not a critique of the film as much as a philosophical inquiry. One rarely gets to see lesbians in cinema, let alone older ones who are good teachers like Barbara. Yet, here again, we are given a woman who is bitter, irrational, repressed and loony. One cannot blame Marber or Dench or anyone involved with the film because the character comes from the source material, Heller’s novel.

It is somewhat mystifying that we are asked to have more sympathy for Sheba who is breaking the law (to save her from her loneliness) than we are allowed for Barbara who in the 21st century still lives with the love that dare not speak its name. That is not to suggest that all lesbians, or gay people for that matter, are safe and comfortable in their sexualities these days. And it is understood that Barbara comes from an era when things were so much different, infinitely harder. Yet her vengeful, narcissistic, neurotic lesbian plays into all our old stereotypes.

In fact, she even has--guess what?--a cat. Come on, Mr. Marber, could you not have taken some poetic license and at least made it a dog? The film’s most implausible moment comes when Barbara has a street brawl with Sheba because she won’t go to pick up the body of Barbara’s euthanized kitty Portia. And why is Sheba not going? Not because she needs another quickie with Steven or she has to polish her silver. Sheba can’t go with Barbara--difficult as losing a pet is--because she must accompany her Down’s syndrome son to his first school play, in which he has an important role. Even Alex Forest was not so needy, so batty in Fatal Attraction.

Worries about the film playing into age-old, nasty stereotypes might be abated by knowing that, being an art-house film, it might draw audiences who know better. Plus, not many people will end up seeing it.

This is a film with some strengths and many fatal flaws. The only scandal here is that it has received far more critical acclaim than it truly deserves.






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