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Notes on a Scandal 

A diamond in the rough of a dismal Oscar season

click to enlarge Oscar nominees Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal - PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT

"Worst. Oscars. Ever." The admirably concise e-mail from a critic friend handily summed up my own reaction to last week's announcement of the Academy Award nominations.

No, I've never spared too many grains of salt for this tinsel-bedecked horse race, which seems to grow more crass and self-defeating as its award-show competition metastasizes. Still, I don't recall another year when I disliked all of the Best Picture nominees, and indeed regarded three of their number—Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima and Little Miss Sunshine—as among the year's most noxious emissions.

This year's nominations can't be put down to a particularly godawful year at the movies; it wasn't. And, from United 93 to The Devil Wears Prada to Casino Royale, many of the year's better studio films were far more commercially successful than Clint Eastwood's soporific, subtitled Letters from Iwo Jima. No, this lame crop seems to bespeak the latest shift not just in Hollywood aesthetics (loosely speaking, of course) but in the industry's dim estimation of its audience.

Consider the implied import of the two films that perhaps best represent Hollywood's new Important Movie paradigm: last year's Best Picture winner, Crash, and its likely successor this year, Babel. Both films feature star-studded casts (audiences love stars!) in interwoven, multi-part stories (audiences have ever-diminishing attention spans) that depend on outrageous contrivances, clichés and coincidences (audiences might've hooted this stuff off the screen a generation ago, but are far more credulous now). Likewise, Crash and Babel are preeningly self-serious in delivering Big Statements bursting with pseudo-profundity (audiences crave meaning but are increasingly unlettered and unsophisticated in how they discern it—these days, almost nothing is too pretentious).

Perhaps the most dispiriting indicator in all of this is the way that these films give us characters that are two-dimensional signboards rather than persuasively imagined people. It's as if slogans, celebrity, living cartoons and genre caricatures have displaced the traditional human focus of movie art: the complexities of human character and psychology.

But here's an irony. The last time I was tempted to declare the imminent demise of Western Civilization due to the way a screenwriter had quashed human nature into a fashionably malign cipher, the offending movie was Mike Nichols' Closer (see, written by one Patrick Marber (adapting his own hit play). Now, Marber is back as the writer of Notes on a Scandal, which turns out to be one of the few Oscar candidates that I think richly deserves all of its nominations: Best Actress (Judi Dench), Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), Score (Philip Glass) and, yes, Adapted Screenplay (Marber). In fact, I'd throw in two more nominations of my own: Best Picture and Cinematography (the brilliant Chris Menges).

You'll notice I didn't automatically include the film's director, Sir Richard Eyre, in that list. That's not because his contribution to Notes isn't excellent and important (it's both), but to register that this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an auteur accomplishment. It is, rather, that more traditional kind of movie triumph in which every key contributor—here including producers Scott Rudin and Robert Fox—adds to a greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts, ineffably synergistic whole.

The reason I highlight Marber, though, is that the cornerstone of the film's achievement is a literary performance: the alchemy resulting from his adaptation of Zoe Heller's acclaimed novel (originally titled What Was She Thinking?, a shortlistee for the Booker Prize), which Marber has described as "a rich brew of comedy, creepiness, satire and suspense." That melding of a novelist's vision and a dramatist's re-vision reminds us that many of cinema's subtlest perceptions derive from literature's, and that the intricacies of the human animal comprise the central subject of both.

The central human animals in Notes are two women who teach at St. George's, a multi-culti high school in north London. Pillar of the history department and self-described "battle axe," Barbara (Dench) is a 60-ish spinster who lives with her cat and registers her acidic observations in a diary. It's important to the film's spell that we start out seeing things from Barbara's perspective. The most significant new person crossing her field of vision, as the school year begins, turns out to be Sheba (Blanchett), a pretty but seemingly rather clueless new art teacher.

Barbara has some sport musing on Sheba's upper-class background, which has devolved into a "bourgeois bohemian" lifestyle. But personal details are more important than class background. When Barbara visits Sheba en famille, she's surprised that the attractive young teacher's husband (Bill Nighy) is a rumpled guy nearly her own age, and that one of her two kids, a boy, has Down's syndrome. These facts contribute to the impression that Sheba sees herself as something of a martyr, one who feels entitled to a bit of liberation. And that, in turn, factors into the confession that Sheba must make when her older friend stumbles into a shocking discovery: The art teacher is a having an affair with a 15-year-old student.

This being the age of official outrage and media hysteria (in Britain's tabloid press perhaps especially) over pedophilia, Sheba risks not only losing her job over this indiscretion but being publicly pilloried and sent to prison as well. She naturally expects her new friend to turn her in. But Barbara has other inclinations. She insists that this is and must remain a private matter, and that she only wants to help Sheba extricate herself from the mess she's gotten herself into.

Yet that bit of apparent generosity disguises a gnarlier emotional agenda. In assisting Sheba in her moment of self-generated difficulty, Barbara binds the younger woman to herself and, indeed, begins to imagine that she's found the lifelong companion she's long dreamed of. And it's here, after the illicit affair has been revealed and the plot's gears truly set in motion, that we start to suspect that the perspective we've shared until now—Barbara's perspective, the movie's perspective, our perspective—is, well, perhaps a wee bit demented.

The brilliant duet between Dench and Blanchett turns out to be chief among this impeccably mounted movie's delights. But it's hardly the only one. Notes is the kind of comedy-drama that occasions blurbs like "wicked fun" not just for its clever plotting but for the seductive way it draws us into its battle of wills, makes us complicit in the characters' shifting perspectives and roiling desires—which in turn beckons us toward the not always comfortable recognition that the story's inner conflicts are ultimately our own.

Unlike this year's Best Picture nominees, Notes doesn't use standard third-person-omniscient narration to transport us into a fiction in which the characters are flattened by genre conventions and the viewer's relationship to the storytelling remains static and unquestioned. Through intermixing elements of melodrama, psychological thriller and social satire, it keeps our expectations and assumptions in constant flux, and thereby expands our sense of both human and cinematic potential.

Notes on a Scandal opens Friday in select theaters.


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