DARK SARCASM IN THE CLASSROOM : Richard Eyre’s ‘Notes On A Scandal’ [5/10]

Back in the 1960s, screenwriter Lukas Heller helped invent a new cinematic sub-genre with a trio of movies he wrote (or co-wrote) for director Robert Aldrich. The success of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) led directly to Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), with The Killing of Sister George following in 1968. Each of these films pivots on stormily intense relationships between women: feuding sisters (Bette Davis and Joan Crawford) in Baby Jane; warring cousins (Davis and Olivia De Havilland) in Sweet Charlotte; a lesbian love-triangle (Beryl Reid, Susannah York, Coral Browne) in Sister George.

Heavy on melodrama and incident, and usually featuring at least one full-tilt cat-fight, these Heller-Aldrich collaborations were a diverting guilty-pleasure for contemporary audiences but also proved surprisingly palatable to critics and award-bodies: though now cherished primarily for their camp value, Jane and Charlotte managed to rack up a dozen Oscar nominations between them, and while George's Reid was shortlisted for a Golden Globe.

Nearly four decades on, Notes on a Scandal arrives on our screens to stir memories of this tempestuous trifecta (Sister George in particular). And the thematic similarities aren't by any means a matter of coincidence: Heller's daughter Zoe wrote the acclaimed novel on which Patrick Marber based his screenplay. The Academy once again rose to the bait, nominating Marber, composer Philip Glass, plus the movie's co-leads Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Of the four 'nods,' however, only Dench's is deserved: indeed, if it weren't for the fact that her mantlepiece already boasts a golden statuette, she'd surely have given Helen Mirren a run for her money. As many have already noted, she turns in arguably her finest big-screen work to date as Barbara Covett, a sixtyish history teacher at an undistinguished north London school.

On paper, Barbara is something of a hackneyed stereotype: this self-proclaimed "battle-axe" is a pinched spinster who can't come to terms with her (indeterminate?) sexuality and so exists in a fug of self-loathing, hiding her vulnerability behind a shrewish facade. For many years Barbara has kept a diary in which she records her innermost thoughts, fantasies and aspirations – and which, as we hear from her narration, is often at odds with reality. Barbara's diary entries make it clear that she sees herself as a scheming manipulator with Machiavellian guile, steely self-awareness, permanent self-control – a kind of distaff variation on Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley. In fact, she's much closer to Highsmith herself (as revealed in Andrew Wilson's fine biography Beautiful Shadow): self-defeating, socially awkward, prone to disastrous misjudgement.

This is most evident in her relationship with Sheba Hart (Blanchett), a newly-arrived, wet-behind-the-ears art-teacher. In her diary, Barbara is scathingly contemptuous towards this willowy bohemian newcomer – but, as we see from their encounters, she's in fact almost instantly besotted by her. Barbara gradually deludes herself into thinking that there's the possibility of a long-term (sexual?) relationship with Sheba, though she realises the pair are in many respect total opposites. Short, squat, abrasive and dowdy, Barbara lives alone (with only an aged cat for company) in a dingy basement flat in run-down Archway, the most unprepossessing corner of otherwise-chic Islington.

Tall, willowy, slightly ditzy Sheba has inherited (from her world-famous economist father) a huge town-house – reached by a rather grand set of steps – in one of the area's most desirable streets, sharing the residence with her (significantly-older) husband Richard (Bill Nighy) and two children. Emotionally somewhat immature, Sheba comes to regard Barbara as friend, confidante and confessor- until events bring them closer together, turn them (to Barbara's delight) into something akin to conspirators. This occurs after Sheba impulsively embarks on a passionate, forbidden affair with one of her pupils, 15-year-old Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Barbara happens upon Sheba's indiscretion – and, true to form, attempts to turn the situation to her advantage. Messy complications rapidly ensue…

There's clearly material here for a rich, camp romp in the Baby Jane / Sweet Charlotte mould – indeed, Marber's first reaction upon reading Heller's book was to exclaim "this is hilarious." And the resulting movie does indeed feature numerous comic moments (Nighy, entertainingly, often seems to think he's acting in a crazy farce.) But overall the tone is wildly uneven – as if Marber and Eyre weren't sure to what extent they were crafting a dramatic exploration of serious subjects. Several stormy scenes – a row between Barbara and her implausibly-monikered headmaster Sandy Pebblem (Michael Maloney), Richard's explosive reaction when he finds out about Sheba's underage paramour, Sheba wrecking Barbara's flat in search of the incendiary diaries – are handled with an over-the-top, shouty kind of theatricality that undermines the picture's believability, while Glass's near-incessant score unhelpfully amps up proceedings as if they're some kind of action-thriller (his work on The Illusionist, though similarly busy, was much more worthy of Oscar recognition.)

As is often the case with movies adapted from diary-format novels, Notes On a Scandal has a choppily episodic feel, and as it lurches along is too often held together solely by the sheer strength of Dench's characterisation (Blanchett's role is primarily reactive, and her accent audibly wobbles during the big confrontations.) But not even Dame Judi can prevent the picture from running right off the rails in the third act as Sheba's indiscretion becomes known not just to her husband and the school, but to the entire nation – the "scandal" of the title. A story which in the real world might have popped up as a page-lead in a paper or two for a day or two seems to noisily dominate Britain's news-agenda, and the chaotic scrums of reporters, camera-crews and photographers outside both women's houses – presented in embarrassingly clunky fashion by Eyre – send the movie off into daft realms of implausibility from which it never manages to return.

Even more troublingly, the film doesn't seem particularly sure of its attitude toward the central duo: is Barbara a vampiric lesbian uber-bitch or a tragic, misunderstood victim of circumstance; is Sheba a vapid, foolish airhead or a(nother) tragic, misunderstood victim of circumstance? In more expert hands, this might have been an opportunity for intriguing ambiguity – here, it's one of numerous faults which looks more like what one is naughtily tempted to categorise, given the film's taboo-tweaking subject-matter, as instances of 'schoolboy' error.

Neil Young
18th March, 2007

NOTES ON A SCANDAL : [5/10] : UK 2006 : Richard EYRE : 92 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at The Tyneside Cinema, Gateshead (UK), 17th March 2007 – public show (paid  £6.20)