Richard Eyre, "Notes on a Scandal": Not One but Two Scandals By Jerzy Plazewski

in 57th Berlinale

by Jerzy Plazewski

Mysterious and bizarre are reasons why at many festivals there is a peculiar group of movies that are ‘in but out of the competition’. And this is exactly the category in which the excellent Notes on a Scandal by Richard Eyre from Great Britain was screened in the main program, but without a chance for any official prizes. This solution seems to be preferred by many acclaimed masters, who declare they wish to give way to younger colleagues, but are actually afraid that they might not win, which could adversely affect the performance of their movies.

But this could not have been the case for Eyre, who is better known for his theatre achievements (artistic director of the London Royal National Theatre). One of his significant movies is Iris — an excellent psychological drama with Judi Dench who gave a remarkable performance. Dench, practicing the Stanislavski method, commenced her career relatively late; this is why we know her for characteristic roles of older, quarrelsome and fussy ladies, which are not that common in today’s cinematography. In Notes on a Scandal she portrays Barbara, a teacher of long standing at one of London’s comprehensive schools, who writes about herself in her diary “they do not like me, but they respect me.” The only friend she has is a she-cat called Portia. But all of a sudden a new art teacher joins the staff — a beautiful woman married to an older man with whom she has got two children (Cate Blanchett — the second outstanding performance in the movie). Unexpectedly Barbara senses a kindred spirit in her, but Sheba, although very kind and polite, is reluctant to establish any closer relationship. This is when Barbara discovers a vital secret. Sheba has seduced Steven, a gifted pupil who is only 15 and is intensely experiencing his pubescence.

Being in possession of such a secret and such a form of pressure, Barbara gets a chance to entirely change her relationship with Sheba. The core of the movie is based on a play of emotions between those two females. The story is told from Barbara’s perspective, and is seemingly a record (notes) from her diary, which is supposed to be an impartial report on an obvious moral and criminal offence that a teacher has committed on her underage pupil (for which she is finally legally sentenced). But Eyre, perfectly aware of the filmmaking means of expression, is gradually familiarizing the audience with an alternative image of Barbara, different from what she would like to reveal. She turns out to be an envious lesbian full of complexes, an egoist to the core. The greatest dramatic achievement of the script is the fact that in the background of one notorious (and punished) scandal it manages to depict yet another one which shall be known to hardly anyone, but the guilt it involves is far more severe; Barbara’s guilt.

Judi Dench marvelously enacts her subsequent emotions, constantly shifting between two levels, i.e., what Barbara wants others to think of her, and what the viewers should know about what she is actually like. Even the slightest change in the foreground story leads to immediate changes in the protagonist’s reactions: sharpness of dialogues, speed of gestures, and insightfulness of observations. Depicting a distinguished and kind-hearted old lady, whose repugnant nature strikes us only when we vigilantly discover the innermost recesses of her soul, this is what acting perfection deserving all the possible Academy Awards is about.