- Sheba dreams of 15-year-olds, while Barbara dreams of Sheba.
Notes on a Scandal, brilliantly adapted by Patrick Marber from the darkly comic Zoë Heller novel, is a grim piece of work -- Fatal Attraction for the art-house crowd, shorn of its predecessor's fearful misogyny. Set in a dreary London, where a gray funk of fog and cigarette smoke hangs over everyone's head like a gathering storm, Notes fits perfectly into Marber's milieu -- a dank England populated by the miserable and the wretched, who go out of their way to make themselves and each other only more miserable and more wretched. Marber made even Julia Roberts -- that ray of million-dollar sunshine -- look gloomy and pitiful in Mike Nichols' 2004 film Closer, which Marber adapted from his own play.
Here, he works his dark magic on Cate Blanchett, playing a beautiful prep-school art instructor blessed with the spirited name Bathsheba Hart (or Sheba, as she likes to be called). Blanchett is a vision in thrift-store duds, a beauty tethered to a frustratingly middle-class existence with her slightly disheveled older husband (Bill Nighy) and their two children, a snot-nosed daughter and a son with Down syndrome. Sheba imagined her life would be something more than this ("Marriage and kids -- it's wonderful, but it doesn't give you meaning," she tells the confidante who becomes her betrayer, played by Judi Dench), and she's forever trying to reconcile the aching gap -- what she calls "the distance between life as you dream it and life as it is."
To fill the void, Sheba heads down a self-destructive path. An affair with a 15-year-old student named Steven (Andrew Simpson) reminds her of the youth she feels she's squandered. That's never more evident than in a scene in Sheba's "summerhouse" -- which is actually just a workshop behind her suburban home -- when, after an afternoon of lovemaking, Steven picks up a copy of Sheba's favorite album, Kaleidoscope by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Calling it "a masterpiece," Sheba talks of how listening to the album as a teenager made her feel "invincible," like Steven feels all the time. But then her boy lover puts on a wizard's hat Sheba made for her son, and she snaps -- from nostalgic reverie to guilt-stricken fear, in the time it takes to draw a single breath. (In the introduction to the screenplay, Marber singles this out as one of his favorite scenes, in which Blanchett acts "with her nerve endings exposed.")
But Steven isn't the only one trying to woo Sheba. A friendless teacher at the school, Barbara Covett (Dench), covets the pretty young thing -- as a friend, she would have us believe as our unreliable narrator. But as her friendship with Sheba blossoms -- from that of colleague to confessor -- Barbara documents each occasion in her diary with puppy-dog delight, dotting every last "i" with a giant red heart.
Marber and director Richard Eyre (who directed Marber's earliest plays at the National Theatre in England) wisely let us in on Barbara's secrets far earlier than Heller does in her novel. Heller forced the reader to like Barbara -- or at least tolerate her -- because she was our guide through the story. But Marber's Barbara is not to be trusted, not to be liked for a single second. We see her as she really is: vengeful, vile, crazy. Still, everyone's a predator in this tale: Sheba feels "entitled" to fuck around with a 15-year-old. Barbara finds a way to one-up Sheba, emotionally blackmailing her until all of them -- Sheba, Barbara, even Steven, that little liar -- end up a sordid lot deserving of their fates. Just where Marber wants them.
There is something decidedly ripped-from-the-headlines about Notes on a Scandal, to the point where pieces of the movie play like an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent rejiggered for the snooty. The tension builds till you expect some mighty tragedy to befall these people. But Marber, tinkering slightly with Heller's novel, finds greater tragedy in the simple, final ruin created by the keeping and sharing of secrets. Dench appears withered, as though she's decaying from the inside; Blanchett shrinks just a little bit more from scene to scene. The result is less a cautionary tale than an absolute horror story in which everyone winds up looking like the walking dead.