January 29, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

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Yes! They finally made a movie about Mary Kay Letourneu! It took over ten years, but with Notes on a Scandal, we’ve got the cinematic depiction of one of the biggest stories of 1997. Well, kind of. As if a teacher engaging in a sexual affair with a fifteen-year-old student didn’t pack enough drama for a full-length feature, Notes ups the dramatic ante with the inclusion of a plot arc about unfulfilled homosexual love. The movie is an examination of the chemical reaction that results when one drops part Letourneau-Lolita intrigue, part Fatal Attraction, part Snow White and lots of latent lesbian suggestion into one posh London neighborhood.

The story begins with the usually regal Judi Dench as a frumpy old high school history teacher named Barbara Covett chronicling her first encounters with the bohemian new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett.) At first, Covett disdains nearly everything about her new colleague, presumably jealous of Hart’s immediate popularity with the staff and students who view Covett as an authoritative old witch. Almost immediately, however, Hart wins her over with her sparkling personality, but this turns out to be a bad move, as Covett proves quite the demanding friend. When she spies Hart in a less-than-proper encounter with a student, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), on the eve of the school’s Christmas festivities, the young teacher is now ensconced deeply in the elder’s web.

The old woman is categorically against everything that her counterpart stands for, such as caring for her children, within and outside the classroom, and protecting her loving husband, Richard (Bill Nighy), from hurt. In all her cunning, though, she keeps these thoughts to herself. What she does value, and her narration makes this abundantly clear, is steadfast and complete friendship; to her, anything less marks an unforgivable betrayal. This manifests itself in the unequivocal yet stealthy treachery she commits against her friends, simply for the sake of control over them.

The most intriguing aspect of Notes emerges when, after the heavy dose of ominous music and uber-creepy diary-reciting narration on the crazy old lady front, the idea of Hart committing statutory rape doesn’t seem so awful. The audience begins to think, “If only the nasty old hag wasn’t there to mess up Hart’s life, things would have been dandy.”

Patrick Marber, most notable as the playwright who persuaded Natalie Portman to pole-dance in Closer, adapted this novel for the silver screen. Marber maintains the page-turning quality of the novel, and he manages to keep the audience entranced for oh, say, 85 out of the 92 minutes of reel time. After that Gladwellian tipping point, however, the doubts of the audience members surface.

The Snow White parallel is as transparent as, as Covett repeatedly reminds us, Hart’s complexion. The elder teacher spends quite a few moments discussing her skin tone. Apparently, Blanchett’s skin in this film is markedly pastier than the average Brit. And metaphorically, she is all too willing, in Covett’s mind, to divulge her deepest secrets. Covett feigns a similar “transparency,” but only so that Hart will divulge her own secrets. Likewise, their statuses evoke Snow White: Hart is a “bourgeois bohemian” member of the middle class set to inherit a large London estate, while Covett is a poor, lonely school teacher, ugly and taunted throughout her entire life.

Naturally, as it does even in Snow White, such juxtaposition is destined to end in tragedy. Covett views Hart’s attraction towards Connolly as a betrayal of their own bond — established largely in Covett’s mind as a union deeper than friendship. Sure, Hart was always married, but Covett justified that to herself by claiming that the marriage was a sham, one that did not pose a threat to their relationship.

Notes on a Scandal maintains a constant level of suspense, until the end, when the bottom drops out beneath it. A valiant effort by those involved, but the potential of the Mary Kay Letourneau narrative does not triumph over the emotional logistics of this onscreen tale.