'Scandal': A Lesson Not Soon Forgotten

Ms. Covett (Judi Dench, right) sees opportunity in the plight of a fellow teacher (Cate Blanchett) embroiled in an illicit affair with a teenage student.
Ms. Covett (Judi Dench, right) sees opportunity in the plight of a fellow teacher (Cate Blanchett) embroiled in an illicit affair with a teenage student. (By Giles Keyte -- Fox Searchlight Via Associated Press)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The joke goes something like this: "Authorities today indicted eighth-grade teacher Melissa J. Smith, 34, of Bethesda on two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for allegedly having sexual relations with a male student. In a related development, the eighth-grade boys elected the blond instructor Teacher of the Year."

All right, it isn't funny -- but it gets at how confounding a train wreck this particular configuration of human folly represents. The older woman, a teacher no less; the young man, unformed of face and fuzzy of cheek. What the heck? Nobody knows what to make of it. Parents are apoplectic, the school board is shamefaced, the principal is destroyed, the other kids think it is so cool, the woman's husband is probably unmanned for life and talk shows and journos make laffs and millions of bucks in its wake. As for the love criminals? Well, no one can really know; they did what they did because that's what they did.

Now "Notes on a Scandal" offers what is possibly the only intelligent account of such a disaster ever constructed, with a point of view that is somewhat gimlet-eyed and offered with absolutely no sentimentality whatsoever.

That point of view, from the mind of a bitter woman named Covett, observes the behavior not as crime or tragedy but as opportunity. Ms. Covett -- the great actress Judi Dench in a knotted, embittered rage almost throughout -- is a salty old pro teaching at an English school, and she noted poor Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the new art teacher, back when she came to the young teacher's rescue as misbehavior threatened to turn her class into anarchy. Covett and Hart? Is that touch perhaps a little precious? In any event, Ms. Covett, iron of spirit as well as of petticoat, stops that outbreak with a few steely words, then takes the younger teacher under her wing.

We watch what we think will unspool as a touching story of human weakness as told from a sympathetic viewpoint, but we soon realize that cheesy uplift is not on the menu. No, indeed. All life, the film argues, is political, in that it progresses from each according to his desires to that same each according to his power. And Ms. Covett has an agenda; she's not even honest with herself, much less us, about that truth, but she wants something from the young, somewhat disorganized beauty. In the narrative sense, Ms. Covett turns out to be that favorite of old-fashioned mystery-dame specialties, the unreliable witness, who is hiding as much as she is revealing.

So the movie is in one sense the story not merely of a scandal -- Mrs. Hart's weakness for young Steven, however misplaced, is the least of the sins it documents -- but of a scandal's utility, for it is Ms. Covett who turns her knowledge of who's doing what to whom into leverage and attempts to get Mrs. Hart out of the frying pan and into an especially hot fire. You have games within games, intrigues within intrigues. It's like the Kremlin in the '30s.

One thing that marks the dark brilliance of "Notes on a Scandal" is the level of the acting, but that is just part of a larger issue: its vision. I can't remember a film that sees the here and now more precisely, one that offers total believability in the tone and motive of its characters and then goes further, showing us a whole and completely recognizable world.

Director Richard Eyre (his last film was "Stage Beauty") and writer Patrick Marber (his last film was the screenplay adaptation of his play, the acerbic sex rondelet "Closer"), working from a novel by Zoe Heller, have extraordinary powers of observation.

As much as anything, "Notes on a Scandal" is a study in the anthropology of British liberal-left middle-class life. The film shows them living in sloppy houses full of artistic disorder and giving full vent to their oh-so-important feelings, which they confuse with reality. They nurse their illusions (several others have comically dangerous illusions, too) and try to hurt nobody's emotions. Cosseted in the bosom of a nanny state, they've lost the power to defend themselves and are free lunch to predators.

Surely Dench will get an Oscar nomination for her performance; she makes you feel the absolute will to power, the Stalinesque shrewdness for weakness and the utter ruthlessness to use it. As the somewhat ditsy Sheba, Blanchett has exactly the appropriate inability to meet anybody's gaze, fear of shouting and disappointment, hunger to help all, addiction to the high of compassion that designates a mark . Bill Nighy is magnificent as an intellectual, boho king who thinks irony will protect him in a world where the bullets are real. As the young bounder Steven, Andrew Simpson has the same hunger for victory that distinguishes Ms. Covett; he is really just her in slightly more glam guise. This is a movie about sharks and little fishes.

Notes on a Scandal (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual content and profanity.

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