Jennifer Merin reviews “Notes On A Scandal”

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For starters, you have Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, arguably two of our finest actresses, in remarkably rich roles, giving stunningly complex performances that will undoubtedly enhance their already exceptional track records. And, both actresses are fast out of the gate in “Notes,” and keep up an exhilarating, lightening paced race of wits until the film‘s conclusion.

Dench and Blanchett play two very different women– teaching colleagues at the same school– whose lives become untangled in unholy, unhealthy ways. Spinster Barbara Covett (Dench), the aging and embittered veteran history teacher with lesbian tendencies, befriends Sheba Hart, the novice art teacher whose free spirit, good looks and openness attract the attention of colleagues and students alike. The emotionally unstable Sheba foolishly confides in Barbara about her unhappy marriage and other insecurities. Barbara obsesses about her friendship with Sheba and, like some Machiavellian black widow spider, weaves a web of entrapping intrigue around her. When Barbara discovers that Sheba’s having sex with a student– the horny and manipulative fifteen-year-old Stephen (Andrew Simpson)– she has Sheba inextricably ensnared and begins to feed off her, draining her emotions, hopes and quality of life.

Dench and Blanchett manage to make you understand– and even like– two characters whose behavior is essentially reprehensible. Their enjoyable meanness and corruption are your guilty pleasures. And, the credibility of their performances will make you reexamine your take on similar scandals that have played out in the media. “Notes On A Scandal“ tops the list of 2006 releases– Little Children, Venus, Half Nelson, History Boys, among them– that explore and illuminate the sorts of challenging relationships that are oft-hidden, oft-denied in our society.

In “Notes On A Scandal,“ the dueling duo of actresses are given all the necessary props to support their game. Patrick Marber’s flawless script, based on Zoe Heller‘s novel, lays bare the psyches of these characters– their human frailties, selfish instincts and their capacity for maliciousness in their scheming. Throughout, Marber’s true to the ironic wit of Heller’s novel, but the film’s ending is different, so don’t think you know it all if you’ve read the original.

Kudos to the outstanding supporting cast, with special nods to Bill Nighy as Sheba’s understatedly upper-crusty, academic older-man husband, and to newcomer Simpson, who stands tall among these more experienced giants and delivers a complex characterization that’s essential to the film’s success.

Sir Richard Eyre’s direction is so good you almost don’t notice it. There’s not one inexplicable turn of dramatic events, not one false camera move, nor continuity problem nor editing gaff to interrupt your entire engagement with story and characters. At times, Philip Glass’ score may seem a bit insistent, but not sufficiently so to detract from the walloping, solid impact of “Notes On A Scandal.”

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).