Some nice performances from a drama that just doesn’t ring true…
Notes on a Scandal is a decently scripted, nicely filmed melodrama, lifted by a great performance from Judi Dench, who manages her character’s gentle arc from lonely old battleaxe to psychotic nutcase well – though it remained, over the whole course of the film, too easy to empathise with Barbara: when she should have been approaching skin-crawling territory: the literate and dryly delivered bon mots of Barbara’s diary, and her gentle allusions to Virginia Woolf, didn’t wane and she remained the hero rather than the anti-hero. Perhaps she was intended to be, and I missed the point. But someone certainly did – when it should have been chiming, too frequently Notes on a Scandal clanged.
Chief culprit was the screenplay. I’ve not read Zoe Heller’s book, but I found Cate Blanchett’s character, Bathsheba, was altogether troublesome. For one thing, the traditional archetype requires some personal imbalance that sets a character off on the plot revealed by the story. Something needs to be missing, or off-key, in the character’s day-to-day life. But with Bathsheba, nothing is: She has a loving (older) husband with whom she seems to share a great relationship with her children, including an apparently happy, affectionate and non-demanding boy with Down’s syndrome. As if to demonstrate this (and what other point would such a contrivance have?) the whole family dances cheerily and un-self-consciously after a first Sunday lunch with Barbara.
Therefore there is no obvious reason for Bathsheba to embark on her fateful voyage – a well-adjusted, happy wife and mother just spontaneously implodes.
Later, Sheba complains of the pressures of having raised a handicapped son for a decade, but we never *see* any such difficulty (indeed, Sheba’s husband seems to be his primary care-giver), and it does not credibly explain why she would suddenly take a job as an inner-city comprehensive art teacher (not exactly a palliative for difficult child-rearing!) nor how adultery by means of statutory rape, apparently within weeks of commencing the job, would make things any better.
If it is difficult to credit her motivation for that, it’s difficult to buy anything else about her character, and as the movie rolled on the less I was engaged by Cate Blanchett’s striking looks and uncanny ability to look vulnerable but alluring at the same time, and the more I felt Bathsheba was just an irrational bimbo who got what was coming to her.
But then the problem becomes: what is this film trying to achieve? What is it trying to say? Barbara battles on: she grows ever more spooky the more we learn about her, but ultimately she undergoes no permanent change: she has learned nothing, suffered nothing, and we leave her exactly as we found her, sitting on her park bench, Hannibal Lecter-like, as if she were sitting down to have her next old friend for dinner.
Once again, Bill Nighy (who appears to have secured some sort of monopoly on playing irascible old buzzards in British Cinema) holds the fort but despite a good effort fails to persuade in a straight role, not helped by the lack of coherence in his part’s characterisation. Being confused as to why Bathsheba stuffed everything up in the first place, he becomes confused as to what to do with her afterwards, and pretty much capitulates and lets her do what she likes.
Certainly an intriguing night out, but I found Notes on a Scandal failed to clear any of my credibility hurdles.