Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Creating a life of the heart when there is none. (Film - Notes on a Scandal)
Judi Dench's character, Barbara Covett, is what might kindly be referred to in old fashioned parlance as a spinster. She is the sad product of someone terrified of risking intimacy, and cloaks her longing in idealized friendship. She creates a harsh and chilly narrative in obsessive journals to keep herself the cool observer of her love object, rather than risking the terror of passion. Cate Blanchett plays Sheba Hart, the young art teacher, as an aimless bohemian - someone who never really got it together professionally, but has ended up surrounded by a life with enough daily chaos that she's always occupied. Life happens to her and she seems to not have enough strength or good sense to resist when sexual attraction arises between her and a 15 year old student. The film establishes differences in character in lovely simple ways, there's a great scene in which Hart invites Covett to dinner at her house, after which she, her older husband and her children put on some music and dance around the living room. Covett sits stiffly on the sofa, smoking, unable to join. I believed her body no longer could move as the others did, so hard had she become. Yet Judi Dench allows you to see the pain and loneliness that drive her actions rather that just playing the manipulative harridan. This is not the mustache twirling antics of Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (great though that is), this is a subtler more human creation.
Understatement is at the heart of what makes Notes on a Scandal a terrific film. Desperate loneliness, manipulation, and sexual longing would all seem to provide ample excuses for teeth gnashing - but the writer, actors, and director seemed to be able to keep it in check until it really rises unbidden, the result being a more terrifying film because it is about 'us,' and not 'them.' This is a major motion picture, with star power behind it, but it never smells like one.
Actually both characters, despite their superficial differences, share immense passion that is expressed in ways society does not tolerate. Both are also possessed of creative drive. Interestingly, Hart, the artist, never produces art - her energies are too dispersed, but Covett must be highly imaginative - not only in producing volumes of elaborate journals, but she creates relationships with others that never really exist. It a sort of desperate act of self preservation - she becomes an artist of fantasies, engineering a life for her heart when there really isn't one. Dench allows you to see this with painful clarity. Great performance. Terrific film.