A scandal with layers
More dramas nowadays are incorporating scenes of characters sitting pensively on the toilet or throwing up when they’re overwhelmed with emotion. The discomforting subject matter doesn’t end there in “Notes on a Scandal.”In fact, those are just the special touches. Based on the novel by Zoe Heller, “Notes on a Scandal” is an off-beat film about loneliness that’s quite remarkable in its diversion from the standard ilk of unrequited love stories.Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is a new teacher at a school in suburban London. She is young, attractive and looking to change her routine after years of raising a teenage daughter and a son with down syndrome. Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is an older teacher whose lengthy history at the school makes her almost part of its foundation. She is hard-nosed, serious and not very likeable. As she says herself, she is not popular but people respect her. She takes Hart under her wing after two boys, one of whom clearly has a school-boy crush on Hart, get into a brawl. This is when we delve into Covett’s diary, a succinct rundown of her daily activity, or lack thereof, and a strikingly descriptive set of notes about people around her. Hart, whose beauty Covett describes explicitly in a tasteful yet awkwardly fixated manner when Hart first arrives at the school, becomes the star of her diary in no time. Covett is delighted when Hart invites her over for lunch, although when she meets Hart’s family, their insufficiencies are assessed immediately in the diary. In the same way some people lose themselves in a book, Covett loses herself in her diary and its unfolding open plot involving Hart and her life. This pulls at the pity strings in its depiction of Covett as a sad, lonely woman whose only other confidante or true friend (other than the diary) is her cat. She becomes significantly more difficult to sympathize with when we begin to see how manipulative she is.This happens quickly, when Covett accidentally catches Hart having sex with Steven, the boy with the school-boy crush. What’s interesting about this film is that it’s only natural for us as viewers to seek a character with whom we empathize, but young Steven is not the one. Freckle-faced and sweet as he may seem in his 15-year-old boyishness, he’s not so innocent after the affair with his teacher persists and he begins throwing out the “C” word and acting like a horny, heartless adolescent.Upon discovering this scandal, rather than turning her loyalty either to her friend or to the institutions of the school and the law, Covett uses her exclusive knowledge of Hart’s secret affair to her own advantage and as leverage for their relationship. All she really wants is to have someone – in this case Hart – in her life, but she certainly doesn’t use the best approach. Meanwhile, Hart is floundering with her hopeless affair and her simultaneously disintegrating marriage. She has this youthful fire in her, also manifesting in her admiration for the likes of 1980s goth rockers Siouxsie and the Banshees (bonus movie points for plugging our favorite band!) and a lingering tendency to doll up in heavy makeup and ratty hair as if she was a teenager herself. Still, like Covett, the manner with which Hart manages her life as a responsible adult is not so heroic. Thus, we’re left with a bunch of characters that are pretty damn far from perfect. The acting is great, though. As unlovable as they may be, the characters in this movie make for interesting case studies. Plus, everyone loves a scandal.