Notes on ‘Notes on a Scandal’

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

Back in the olden days, they just didn’t make teachers that looked like Cate Blanchett.

For instance, my own third-grade teacher, Mrs. Odel, cruised up and down the aisles like a great grey battleship wrapped in a blue-and-white polka dot dress. Bad kids got whacked with a ruler. Good kids shut their mouths, closed their eyes, and fantasized about Maureen O’Hara.

But this is nowadays, so I guess you really can’t blame the cheeky young 15-year-old student for coming on to his art teacher in “Notes for a Scandal,” currently playing at the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville but eventually coming to the Dixie in downtown Staunton.

Surprisingly enough, art teacher Cate does the big no-no with the kid, is caught doing it by borderline personality schoolmarm Judi, and a tense psychological thriller ensues.

Here are my notes on “Notes.”

Note: Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are so good in “Notes on a Scandal” that it makes me mad. Dame Judi is up for a Best Actress Oscar, but will lose to Helen Mirren. Cate is up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and will lose to Jennifer Hudson. There’s no justice in this world.

Note to myself: Read the darkly comic Zoe Heller novel upon which this film is based. If it’s half as good as Patrick Marber’s crisp, acidic screenplay, it’s great.

Note: Judi Dench needs no dialogue. She scuttles across this film like a predatory crab, playing poor flawed Cate like a fiddle. There’s almost no need for her voiceover while she’s recording the cheesy scandal in her diary. Her every thought is obvious on her face.

Note: This is a film about needy people. Cate, married to a much-older man (wonderfully underplayed by the great Bill Nighy), needs relief from a difficult home situation. Dame Judi, a lonely old woman, needs someone (Cate) to latch onto, emotionally and physically. And the young boy adequately played by Andrew Simpson, like all young guys, simply needs a hottie.

Another note to myself: Never miss a Bill Nighy movie. He’s made nine films in the past two years, including “Girl in the Café” and “Gideon’s Daughter,” and will soon be seen in “Hot Fuzz.”

Note: People who act in Glass houses should wear earplugs. The action is tense enough as it is, without the overwrought musical score by Philip Glass. For reasons beyond ken, he’s also up for an Oscar, but adds needless melodramatic background in the beginning, and his music over the closing credits sound like he’s scoring “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Note: The whole teacher-has-sex-with-student theme may sound pretty tacky by current morals, but due to Marber’s wondrous screenplay (also Oscar nommed for Best Adapted), plus the sensitive and chilling talents of Dench, Blanchett and Nighy, the film becomes a many-faceted and fascinating insight into real human emotions.

Note: What makes this film so frightening is that the story could have leaped right out of recent headlines. Remember the sordid Marie LeTourneau scandal? Honestly, they’ve just got to quit manufacturing these gorgeous-looking teachers and go back to the old Mrs. Odel model. Ain’t nobody gonna hit on a battleship.

Meanwhile, Back at the Dixie:

While you’re waiting for “Notes on a Scandal” to come to town, the brand-new “Catch and Release” is on one of the Dixie screens right now. It’s a bittersweet romance, perfect for fans of star Jennifer Garner. Above-average date movie.

Still at the Dixie: the multi-Oscar-nommed “Dreamgirls,” plus Will Smith at his best in “Happyness.”


Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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