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Notes on a Scandal

February 6th, 2007 (08:36 am)

I don't think that there has been a film in which, fifty minutes in, I am looking at my watch not because the film is bad, but because its narrative makes such uncomfortable viewing. Notes on a Scandal (adapted from Zoe Heller's novel by Patrick Marber, and directed by Richard Eyre) depicts human weakness and manipulation in so many twists and turns that still ring very true. I didn't like it at first, and was ready to relegate it to the barrel of unconvincing tales of contemporary complicity alongside Michael Frayn's novel Headlong, which I read over six years ago and didn't believe; but this rapidly gained more credibility with me.

Ringing is appropriate because the phone is a motif; characters' lives are altered by information disclosed over the phone, or in meetings arranged by it. Text messaging is the prerogative of youth, specifically Sheba Hart's teenage lover Stephen Connolly (Cate Blanchett and Andrew Simpson). Juxtaposition of dialogue and image is managed skilfully; there's a shot early on where Judi Dench's character, Barbara Covett (the names of the two main characters are not the most subtle in literature or cinema), describes the action but completely misses the importance of the event for her object of study, Sheba Hart; or does she? For the narration is part of Barbara's diary, which is not a masterpiece of self-deception, but seems to do the trick.

There are lots of other touches in the direction and photography, too. Of the schoolteachers, Tom Georgeson's Ted Mawson is always moving through the shot and we never get a firm image of his face. The film starts and ends on Hampstead Heath, Barbara looking over London both solitary and isolated, and a hawk (or perhaps more appropriately a cat) looking for her next prey. There's a pleasing in-joke in the casting of Anne-Marie Duff, a third screen Elizabeth I, as the new object of Barbara's attentions at the end.

I thought Judi Dench just too old to play Barbara, even taking into account Barbara's embittered detachment from her environment and her inner dessication. Her performance is nonetheless excellent. The impression I have of Cate Blanchett's Sheba in this film is one of movement; the camera moves around her, flirting with her as Sheba does with it: Barry, played by Phil Davis in a manner that recalls Timothy Spall's Barry in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and not at all his King John in Robin of Sherwood, recognises that Sheba's way of relating to people is to flirt with them in such a way that makes her intentions unclear. At times I felt the film was going to conclude that Sheba and Barbara deserved one another, but Sheba is allowed redemption, leaving Barbara looking for mice upon the heath.


(Deleted comment)
Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 6th, 2007 09:03 pm (UTC)

Hope you enjoy Miss Potter. I haven't seen it yet. Of the films trailed last night, the one that springs to mind first is Babel, but I've not yet read anything about it.