Banner performances demand respect for ‘Scandal’

Robert Taylor

First you take several time-worn genres of film that have seemingly worn out their welcome at the multiplexes, such as stalker movies, intense family dramas and adultery thrillers, and throw them into a blender. Then add, for good measure, two of the best working actresses today, hit the blend button and the results would be something akin to Notes on a Scandal; a taut, compelling little thriller that borders on art thanks to the respective work of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, who alternately give two of the best performances of 2006.

During its amazingly short running time, just 91 minutes, Scandal manages to have more turns in its twisted plot than thrillers almost twice its length. No scene in the film is easily disposable, and writer Patrick Marber juggles so many balls with his screenplay that something is constantly being set up or paid off in any given scene, all kept cohesive through dry humor and Dench’s mildly terrifying narration.

The film opens at the beginning of a new school term, with Sheba (Blanchett) arriving to teach art. Sheba quickly catches the eye of the nasty, obsessive Barbara (Dench), and the two form an awkward friendship. Sheba shares her unhappiness with her husband and family life and other unhealthy nuggets, which Barbara compulsively recounts in her journals, placing gold stars next to her favorite encounters with Sheba.

Late one evening Barbara happens upon Sheba doing the dirty with one of her students, but instead of turning her in decides to cement her place in Sheba’s life, whether Sheba likes it or not.

I dare not reveal any more of the surprises (though the trailer does a good job of that), but the screenplay, music and direction alone prove Scandal to be a worthwhile suspense piece that melds together several thriller genres without overreaching or feeling forced.

But the movie borders on becoming a masterpiece because of two other factors: Dench and Blanchett.

It becomes almost repetitive to continue to give Dench the kudos she so much deserves, because everyone’s favorite Dame is just so darn good in whatever role she inhabits that one can’t help but throw praise her way, and this role is no exception. She is absolutely terrifying in her subtlety about the appalling things she does throughout Scandal, making her meltdown about two-thirds of the way through the film so much more powerful.

The real surprise here, however, is Blanchett. Yes, she has impressed before in films like The Aviator and The Gift, but has never dominated a movie or stolen it. But here she ably goes scene-for-scene against Dench and doesn’t disappear into the mix. She perfectly balances more subtle scenes with emotional moments without overacting or chewing on the scenery.

Though the film’s climax is quite explosive, it proves to be the film’s one major shortcoming. By the time all of the major story twists have run their course, the screenwriter wrote himself into a corner and took the easy way out. The results don’t exactly stay true to the characters’ motivations and comes a bit too easily.

Perhaps something bleaker or more tragic would have served the movie better than the routine ending the thriller receives, but earlier events in the film are so engrossing that perhaps no ending could have fully done the characters the justice they deserve.

Quibbles. For most of its running time, Notes on a Scandal is a crackerjack thriller featuring two phenomenal performances and a villain that will haunt you and make you reevaluate your friendships when walking out of the theater.

Contact ALL correspondent Robert Taylor at [email protected].