I finally caught Notes on a Scandal (IMDB) tonight (we’re a little behind in Fayetteville), and while I wanted to like it, something about the film fell flat for me. I think that Patrick Marber’s (Closer, which I also found to be a bit overrated) screenplay and Richard Eyre’s direction seemed a bit forced, as if the film had to telegraph too much information about Barbara (Judi Dench), the prim, matronly, but creepy schoolteacher who develops a fondness for young, vulnerable, female teachers. This information is given to us through Barbara’s voice-over narration of her diaries, which we are immediately led to understand are unreliable, suggesting her character’s psychological instability and her lack of awareness of her own motives.
When Bathsheba (Cate Blanchett), the art teacher with a thrift-store chic, takes a job teaching at Barbara’s working-class high school and begins an affair with a 15-year old student, it becomes clear a little too quickly where their relationship is going (it could be that I saw the trailer a few too many times). The student-teacher affair is an interesting subplot, especially when it becomes clear that the student is, in many ways, the aggressor in the relationship, lying to Sheba and playing to her interest in art to win her sympathies, but I couldn’t help but think that if the filmmakers had trusted the audience a bit more, Notes could have been a more interesting, darker film. Add the somewhat undeveloped subplot of Sheba’s boredom with her marriage–she comments at one point that “marriage and kids, it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t give you meaning”–and the film felt mildly dated (which might explain all of the Fatal Attraction comparisons).
There was a strain of dark comedy that seemed to emerge on occasion, such as when Barbara disdainfully describes Sheba’s family as “bourgeois bohemians” or when she sharply dismisses the school principal’s kinder and gentler methods of educating children, but those moments were displaced by the film’s need to explain Barbara’s actions too simply as sexual repression. I don’t really have time for a longer review right now, but it’s hard for me to resist the idea that Notes on a Scandal could have done more with the material that was available.
Update: Edited for corrections. I originally listed the screenwriter as Stephen Mamber. It was Patrick Marber. Perhaps I should stop blogging so late at night.