2007-01-26 / Columnists

MovieScope

Review By Robert Snyder


'Notes On A Scandal' - Hot For Teacher

In recent years, headlines have screamed of female teachers sexually seducing underage male students. Mary Kay Letourneau, Rene Syler and Debra LeFave have all been charged with statuary rape, involving boys sometimes as young as 13 or even in sixth grade.

Now, the serious British classical film community has taken on the challenge of this sordid school business. Based on a book by Zoë Heller, "Notes on a Scandal" features topnotch actresses Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, with a Patrick Marber ("Closer") script under the helm of Director Richard Eyre, who ran the National Theater in London. Dipping into such a topic, these highbrow artists are clearly slumming. But when moral decay and corruption are so elegantly wrapped, it can't help but make for an interesting movie, in the best British sense.

Young Bohemian wife and mother Sheba Hart (Blanchett) takes a job as an art teacher in a comprehensive north London high school. Her presence clearly shakes up the staid establishment, lorded over by veteran history instructor and self-proclaimed "battle ax" Barbara Covett (Dench). Sheba appears happily married to an older, but fun-filled lawyer, Richard (Bill Nighy). The couple have a teenage daughter, Polly (Juno Temple), and a sweetly clownish son, Ben (Max Lewis), with Down Syndrome.

Narrating the story with acerbic excerpts from her diary, Barbara reveals herself to have a potent longtime enemy: Loneliness. She encounters Sheba in a compromising situation with 15-year-old Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson) and uses the knowledge to extort friendship from her colleague. Barbara's methods become progressively controlling until she demands her company for consolation when her beloved cat dies. Defying her, Sheba accompanies her family to a school play promoting first-time actor Ben.

The spurned "battle ax" retaliates by blowing the whistle on Sheba's illegal liaisons. Yet, ever Machiavellian, Barbara somehow manages to strengthen her friendship with Sheba, who is naive enough to seek shelter from the media storm in Barbara's abode…the lonely spinster's master plan all along.

Essentially cheap soap opera, "Notes on a Scandal" is elevated to dramatic heights through the sheer power of its acting, writing and direction. At one point, in fact, the screen seems to explode. What would happen if Dench, Blanchett and company were to take charge of TV's "All My Children"?

Those concerned about sexual predators among school faculty will find "Notes on a Scandal" disturbing …and more so because it's been given the "Masterpiece Theater" treatment.

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