Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With these films, I'm at 3 Brattle film seen and 9 elsewhere, which means 15 "points" total (or .57, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

I figured I was going to be doing some form of Oscar catch-up last night after work; I just initially planned on going to Last King of Scotland at the Landmark Embassy in Waltham. Alas, I got out of work to late for that and wound up in Brookline.

I don't know if I'll be making the effort to specifically "catch up" so that I can kvetch during the broadcast with some sort of authority this year. I'll be seeing a lot of films, what with the watch-a-thon on and no baseball, but I noticed that I had only seen two out of five in each of the major acting categories this year without a huge specific desire to see the others. I figure that's probably heatlhy - see what you want, and not what some list tells you is necessary.

Still, this is one I'd been looking to see anyway, despite only having seen a trailer Friday with Volver. Judi Dench seems to get an award nomination every year for playing a fairly small role (and when she doesn't, she's playing a small part in a Bond movie), and I was curious to see her talent brought to bear on a larger role. And, hey, it's two people who have had great portrayals of Elizabeth I working opposite each other; I wonder if they chatted about that on set.

Notes on a Scandal

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2007 at The Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (First-run) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

At least in her work that has shown up in America in recent years, Dame Judi Dench has mostly managed to avoid the "poisonous, meddlesome spinster" roles. This kind of surprises me, since they're generally small but memorable parts, the sort of thing where she excels. She's also the right age and has the right voice for them. Maybe she feels it would be too easy.

Notes on a Scandal gives her the chance to play that sort of role as a lead, and she dives into it with relish. Her Barbara Covett describes herself honestly as a battle-axe, a high-school history teacher long past feeling any sentiment about her noble profession ("teaching is crowd control") and looking down at her colleagues and students with contempt. The irony is that in many ways, Barbara has never matured beyond the level of her students. Her diary entries are used as narration and a direct look into her mind, and Dench gives them the breathless voice of a teenager. Sure, that voice can become angry, bitter, and cynical at a moment's notice, but when she's first becoming friendly with Cate Blanchett's Sheba, there's a near-innocence to her obsession. It doesn't make Barbara any less monstrous; if anything, it marks her as even more maladjusted. Dench keeps us from finding Barbara crazy; indeed, she's frighteningly sane.

The movie relates how this bitter woman becomes infatuated with the new art teacher at he school, and while she's at first content to be friends with (and, perhaps, a mentor to) the young and beautiful Sheba Hart (Blanchett), her admiration is shaken when she sees Sheba making love to fifteen-year-old student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). At first she's appalled, but she quickly sees opportunity: Apply this knowledge properly, and Barbara can get much closer to Sheba - perhaps even pry her away from her husband Richard (Bill Nighy) and their children.

Full review at HBS.

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