From Literature to Pulp Fiction: This Could Have Been a Taut Drama; Instead, It's a Squalid Red-Top Expose
Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)
Notes on a Scandal (15)
dir: Richard Eyre
If the cast and crew of Notes on a Scandal pooled their respective awards and prizes, the glinting of statuettes would be visible from outer space. Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy head the cast. Off-screen are Scott Rudin, who produced The Hours; Patrick Marber, who wrote Closer; and the director Richard Eyre, whose theatrical reputation has helped excuse a so-so film career. It would be no surprise if the on-set catering came courtesy of the Ivy.
The unintentional joke of the film is that all this class has been put to work on what is essentially trashy fun. Claude Chabrol would have made something taut out of Zoe Heller's novel about a lesbian teacher who becomes obsessed with a younger colleague. But Eyre is not in that league; he transforms it into a film as squalid and titillating as a red-top expose.
As the vinegary Barbara Covett, grande dame at a north London comprehensive, Dench is hilarious and disquieting by turns. We fear "Barb"--the abbreviation is almost too apt for this spiky creature--from the moment she silences a classroom of rowdy teenagers with the merest narrowing of the eyes. Later we discover that she attracts restraining orders the way the rest of us get junk mail. But Dench's compassionate performance ensures that we experience regular pangs of sympathy for Barb. How could we not, when she's the only human character in the film?
Into her mothballed life breezes Sheba Hart (Blanchett), the new girl in the staffroom. Sheba is popular but out of her depth, and when Barb intervenes to help with discipline problems, she is overcome with gratitude. Barb becomes her confidante. When she discovers that Sheba has been sleeping with Steven, a 15-year-old pupil, she uses this knowledge to pressure her new best chum into pledges of increasing intimacy. Sheba's husband, Richard (Nighy), can only wonder at the spell that this frumpy woman has cast over his wife. During a confrontation in which he and Barb almost break into a tug-of-war match over Sheba, Philip Glass's score seems to resort to Morse code, sending out distress signals that none of the characters can decipher.
The film finds a cinematic equivalent for Barb's role as the novel's unreliable narrator. …