Amid the flurry of Christmas-week releases, 10-best lists, and “Movie Clubs,” I never got the chance to write on Notes on a Scandal, directed by Richard Eyre (Iris, Stage Beauty) and starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. In our Spoiler Special podcast on the film, my Slate colleague Tim Noah contended that Notes on a Scandal was a wicked psychological chess game, a diabolical inversion of viewer expectations—in short, that it actually was the movie I had wanted it to be, instead of the one I saw. Tim was so persuasive and enthusiastic, and critical response to the film has been so positive, that I decided to watch Notes on a Scandal again last night. I still find it a disappointment, a movie that clomps soddenly where it should scamper nimbly, and I’m trying to get at the reason why.
Notes on a Scandal is one of those movies that ought to glide by on the juice factor alone. Dench and Blanchett are high priestesses of acting, capable of finding nuance even in the most mediocre dialogue. The subject matter—a teacher allows herself to be seduced by a young male student, only to be blackmailed by an older colleague who’s also obsessed with her—is irresistibly titillating (I’m not asking for high art here; I’d have been thrilled with a well-acted version of the Mary Kay Letourneau story). But Notes on a Scandal is a wobbly film that never settles on its tone or, perhaps more precisely, its voice. It can’t figure out what kind of movie it wants to be: a high-camp melodrama, a realistic psychological portrait of a troubled female friendship, or a vampire-lesbian horror film. That uncertainty is most evident in the voiceover narration, provided by Dench from the diary of her character, Barbara Covett.
Dench’s character isn’t an actual vampire, of course, and she may not even be an actual lesbian. A spinster schoolteacher who keeps a diary of nasty observations about her co-workers, Barbara seems at first like a wickedly funny guide, given to tossing off one-liners pickled in brine and served with a side of class resentment: “The tweedy tramp coat is an abhorrence,” she snarks, observing the fashionable disarray of the sexy new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Blanchett). Invited to lunch at Sheba’s elegant townhouse, she cracks wise to the audience like a Shakespearean villain delivering an aside: “They do things differently in bourgeois bohemia.” But Barbara’s tart self-assurance also gives way to sudden bursts of earnest vulnerability: When Sheba extends that lunch invitation, she looks forward in her diary to “Bliss! A merry flag on the Arctic wilderness of my calendar.” These shifts in tone are jarring at first; then you realize they’re meant to jar.
Departing from the 2003 Zoë Heller novel on which the film is based, screenwriter Patrick Marber (Closer)tries to do something very ambitious with the voiceover: He wants to maintain the book’s reliance on a classic unreliable narrator. But the narrator who means something very different from what she says, and who lacks the self-knowledge to conceal her true motives from the reader, is a literary conceit that transfers with great difficulty to the screen. Unreliable voiceover may have been done well once or twice before in the movies (if you can think of an example, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org), but Marber doesn’t pull it off here.
As Sheba begins an affair with a working-class student (Andrew Simpson, who looks young enough to make the coupling genuinely shocking), Barbara’s scribbled observations begin to veer toward the bizarre. “Sheba and I share a deep understanding now,” she exults after the younger woman confesses her transgression. Just as we begin to see how Barbara is misinterpreting Sheba’s fear of exposure as legitimate friendship or even romantic love, Barbara reverts once more to a scheming Iago. Imagining the consequences of ratting Sheba out to her husband (a terrific Bill Nighy), Barbara gloats, “She’ll have nowhere to turn but trusty old Bar.” And in the movie’s overheated conclusion, which I won’t give away here, the many motives of Barbara converge in a scene so implausible it doesn’t seem to gibe with any of her prior personas.
Perhaps these disorienting shifts are meant to show the viewer how it would feel to actually be a delusional old bat with repressed sexual longings. But the herky-jerky way the screenplay alternates among Barbara’s many selves doesn’t serve to bring us into her inner world. Instead, Notes on a Scandal is the psychological equivalent of a bad slasher movie (perhaps this accounts for the painfully inappropriate Philip Glass score, in which violins saw and drone furiously away in the background of nearly every scene, as if people were being murdered in the shower rather than complaining over cups of tea.) The bad version of Voiceover Barbara shows up whenever it’s necessary to get the audience’s pulse racing, only to replaced by the good (or at least pitiable) version, with whom we sympathize just long enough to be jolted when the shrew emerges again. Dench holds up beautifully under this emotional whiplash, making each individual line-reading count even as the aggregate falls apart. It’s a virtuoso performance in a role that makes no sense.