Cinema Signal:

What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal
by Zoe Heller
. "Notes on a Scandal"

All the elements of overheated passion and crosswinds of forbidden erotic attraction are brought to the screen and elevated from a Harlequin novel sensationalism to a somewhat satisfying artistic level by the talents of its superb actors.

The figure who is the catalyst for all these outbound passions is Richard Hart (Bill Nighy) simply by being an uninspiring, unexciting husband and bed companion for his wife Sheba (Cate Blanchett). For one, he's much older. But, the chap's got virtues, like being a supportive spouse and doting father to the kids, a teenage daughter, a Down Syndrome younger brother. It's just that these housebroken qualities aren't quite fulfilling for the attractive personality he's sharing his life with.

Any dissatisfaction on Sheba's part isn't on the level of awareness. She has her artwork as an outlet and, seeking further stimulation (of the mind), she joins St. George's, a local middle school, as a pottery/art instructor. She's innocent of harboring any desire beyond expanding the horizons of her students. Her relative youth (40ish) and vibrant personality are noted by faculty, with history teacher Barbara Covett's (Judi Dench) immediate appraisal of Sheba to be a superficial person, lacking in depth. But, could this just be envy -- the bitterness of an old spinster?

But, Barbara doesn't take her eyes off her new colleague and, as we all know, first impressions from a distance take on an entirely new perspective when you get to know the person. As a good part of this story is from Barbara's narration of her thoughts and diary entries, we understand how and why the initial judgement of lovely Sheba turns into a passion to befriend her, to hold her close, to be endeared by her. In fact, 60ish Barbara, a woman with an edge of superiority and unfulfilled needs, is beginning to think Sheba is the person she's been waiting for all her life.

Little does she suspect, however, what passions have been aroused within the object of her desire. While Barbara is imagining one thing, Sheba's passions have been focusing on Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson), a rather forward student of 15, and it's taken a physical turn despite his age. This lad ("mature-for-his-age") has ignited an ardor in Sheba she didn't know she was capable of. But, when the need is there.... Ahem.

Yes, you heard this story before. "Older Teacher Corrupts the Morals of a Minor." Purity despoiled. Hot headlines. Sly capitalization on the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal in which a teacher-student affair really happened, and sold many a newspaper, from major ones to trash tabloids. Grist for the voyeurism mill.

And, then, Barbara inadvertently catches Sheba and Steven during one their steamy liasons and her world spins around. She realizes what's been going on. She's outraged. Scandalized. But Barbara, wise old lesbianic witch that she is, reflects, and realizes the power she now holds over Sheba, and takes every advantage of it. Oh, how giddy she gets in the thought that she can at last control her flighty enamorata.

The complications that these cross currents of desire, secrecy and fear produce play out with all the emotional paydirt director Richard Eyre ("Iris," "Stage Beauty") and screenwriter Patrick Marber ("Asylum") were after in their adaptation of a novel by Zoe Heller. Screams, accusations, revelations, disappointments, condemnations, a press corp that's wetting its tabloid pants over such a hot item when it's exposed... it's all here, folks, in living color and thespianic intensity worthy of an award or two if the publicists for the movie have their way.

In this department, the problem is Blanchett's competition against her own femme fatale in "The Good German," a portrayal more likely to command Academy attention. Facing no such self-contentions, Grande Dame Dench, might well stir up a few votes for this. It would give her another shot after having won only a nomination for her "Mrs. Henderson Presents" in 2005. This modern-day vessel of repressed sexual desire seems designed to expand on her range of talent and who better to do it with than Blanchett.

I can't recall Cate Blanchett ever being quite so naturalistic, and earthy, thanks to the modern context rather than the costume ("Elizabeth"), historical ("The Aviator"), comedic ("The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou") and experimental ("Coffee and Cigarettes") films she's prone to do. Before cinematographer Chris Menges' caring lens, her beauty is radiant, almost startlingly so at times. The flawless skin glowing complexion that requires no airbrushing, the abundant blond hair -- her physical attributes become a dramatic element with their effect of stirring up trouble in routine lives. A rogue wave roiling calm waters. This marvel of the profession finds a way to be freshly different every time she paddles out.

Composer Philip Glass is aboard to generate sympthetic emotional disturbances with his repetitive patterns of suggestive, off edge tonality, recalling his similar modal work for "The Hours."

The wayward passions of Heller's book couldn't be better served while also providing a multi-obsessional treasury for Blanchett and Dench to plunder with crackling creative joy. The dramatic alchemists at work here turn erotic deviation and sordid indiscretion into explosive irony, making a finely crafted film for a discerning audience.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

[Loaded with features: # Commentary by director Richard Eyre # The Story of Two Obsessions # Behind The Scenes # In Character with Cate Blanchett # Webisodes: # Judi and Cate: Behind The Scandal # The Screenplay # Judi Dench # Cate Blanchett # A Conversation with Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy]

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