Notes on a Scandal (15)

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Once upon a time there was a beautiful fairy princess, and everyone loved her except the wicked old witch... Adults mostly flatter ourselves that we've grown out of fairy-tales, unless it's the dark, ambiguous variety practised by Angela Carter or Guillermo del Toro; but the faintly embarrassing truth is that the old-style Disney fairy-tale is hard to shake off. In real life, however often experience demonstrates that it's not that simple, we can't shake off the expectation that the difference between good and evil is going to be easy to sort out, and that there will be some kind of correlation between goodness and beauty.

Notes on a Scandal, adapted from Zoë Heller's novel, doesn't come on like a fairy-tale at all; indeed, for much of its length you could easily mistake it for a slice of social realism. The action is set in north London, in the painfully familiar landscape of a comprehensive school, where the pupils are restless, and the staff are too busy with the requirements of bureaucracy and crowd-control to think much about actual education. The opening scene finds the senior staff assembled in the school gym for a start-of-term meeting, at which the headmaster is collecting dossiers they've prepared about the activities of their departments, amid laboured jokes about handing in homework.

Enter Sheba Hart, the new art teacher, thirtysomething, gorgeous and new enough to the job to have retained some idealism. Her arrival at the school immediately causes a stir: women teachers swap confidences, male teachers stand up a little straighter and pay her clumsy compliments. "She's certainly caused some ripples in our stagnant pond," Barbara Covett confides to her diary, the metaphor all the more stinging because it so clearly hits the nail on the head.

Barbara, who is head of history, is Sheba's opposite - on the verge of retirement, dried up, utterly devoid of illusions about her pupils, the system, and her place in it. Even she can see the charm, noting that Sheba has "the complexion of a white peach - one can almost see her veins" (that's in sharp contrast to Barbara's own pinched looks); she undercuts the sentimentality by adding "her trendy politics are equally transparent".

The two women become friends - improbably, but not incredibly: you can see that Sheba might feel compassion for Barbara's loneliness, as well as being drawn to her experience and apparent self-sufficiency; while Barbara is perhaps less self-sufficient and more susceptible to glamour than she'll let on.

Sheba invites Barbara to lunch, and now the film moves to another horribly recognisable environment: Sheba lives in a bourgeois bohemian idyll - a large Victorian terrace set on a quiet, tree-lined street, and filled with natural wood and a clutter of art, cushions and stereo equipment. Among the warmth and slightly self-conscious informality, Barbara (who has fussed over her costume like an excited schoolgirl) is awkward and overdressed - she has to excuse her jacket and pearls to Sheba's ostentatiously unceremonious daughter on the grounds of a later appointment somewhere smart.

And then the plot gets going: Barbara discovers that Sheba is having an affair with a pupil, a boy called Stephen Connolly; and after her first outrage has died down, she tells Sheba she will keep her secret. There are two conditions: one is explicit - that Sheba ends the relationship with the boy; the other is unspoken - Sheba will be Barbara's best friend.

Up to this point, the film motors along on the exquisitely observed reproduction of everyday life. The school looks like a real school, the house looks like a real house, the marriage feels like a real marriage, the people, in Patrick Marber's script, talk like real people - and not just real people, but people who live here and now.

The performances, too, are brilliantly naturalistic. Judi Dench, as Barbara, is not only a central figure on screen, but gives the film a darker tone through Barbara's voiced-over diary entries; she carries all this weight effortlessly. In recent years, Dame Judi's gifts have at times been smothered by her status as best-loved British actress - her own personality crowds the characters she's playing off the screen, or the stage. Here, she seems to grasp eagerly the opportunity to scratch out any residual affection the audience might feel, to make them dislike this character as much as possible. And after that she forces you to look through the dislike, and to see in Barbara's loneliness not simply something to pity but something you might even identify with. This star turn is surrounded by brilliant lesser turns - Michael Maloney as the headteacher whose pleasant exterior only barely conceals the hard-nosed bureaucrat; Jo Scanlan as the chunky teacher who wants to be Sheba's friend; Bill Nighy as Sheba's older, believably attractive husband. And Cate Blanchett, as Sheba, glows with beauty and compassion.

But this is where the problems start: throughout the film, Sheba is presented as a sympathetic character. She may have betrayed all the trusts placed in her as a teacher and a wife and a parent, but she remains a fairy princess. This is partly about Blanchett's unwillingness or inability to show Sheba's darker side. She allows the loveliness to be underscored by loneliness and frustration - as well as the much older husband, Sheba has a son, Ben (excellently played by Max Lewis), with Down's syndrome, and she ascribes to the pressures of caring for him her sense of "entitlement" to a fling. But to start screwing a 15-year-old - doesn't that require something a bit nastier, a core of fecklessness?

This isn't just Blanchett's problem: the film itself doesn't seem to notice this omission, or others. The script never offers a convincing account of what carries Sheba over from being flattered and intrigued by a pupil's attentions into twice-a-night bonking sessions by the side of the railway. When Barbara lets Sheba's secret out and the scandal proper begins, the boy is shoved aside - the idea that a 15-year-old boy (with, by the way, learning difficulties) might suffer from the relationship or the media circus is simply never considered. Instead, the film concentrates on Barbara: it turns out she's got previous, other women who were befriended, then harassed and manipulated. We should have guessed: anyone who looks that much like a witch has to be wicked. (Actually, she might be a vampire: Sheba actually calls her that at one point, and it occurred to me that Dench's mask-like make-up, the eyebrows plucked into thin arches, might be inspired by Murnau's Nosferatu.) The fact that Barbara's wickedness has had no practical effect - that Sheba had already encompassed her own disgrace - isn't mentioned.

All in all, Notes on a Scandal is enjoyable, and by gum it looks classy (the cinematography by Chris Menges - The Mission, Dirty Pretty Things). But in the end, under the beautifully observed surface, it's just a standard-issue bunny-boiler, a fairy-tale; and not even one for grown-ups.

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