Notes on a Scandal is certainly not lacking in pedigree: a film starring Cate Blanchett, Dame Judy Dench, and the formidable Bill Nighy, directed by Serious Director Extraordinaire Richard Eyre (Iris, Stage Beauty), and featuring a musical score by Philip Glass, creates certain expectations. One thing I certainly wasn’t expecting is the pulpy horror film Notes on a Scandal actually turns out to be, replicating most of the conventions of a genre in a rarified, vaguely literary, awards-season milieu. Not knowing this makes for a strange viewing experience as you slowly realize that this is a movie about a lonely and deranged old lady who becomes obsessed with a beautiful new coworker and proceeds to blackmail and terrorize her family.
I love horror, and wholeheartedly support any elevation of the genre to broader respectability. From that perspective, I’m stoked with Notes on a Scandal: it will attract an audience that wouldn’t be caught dead at a movie like this had it been marketed differently. At the same time I’m conflicted: injecting self-importance into the genre can’t be a great idea, as its effect often depends on spontaneity, and sometimes the geek ideal of purposely treating the ridiculous seriously. And in that sense, it’s a little sad that we never sense the possibility that Judi Dench might pick up a sharp implement and hurl herself shrieking at Cate Blanchett.
Theoretical genre considerations aside, though, Notes on a Scandal doesn’t quite work. Dench’s Barbara Covett lacks the true menace to make her into an effective villain, and the recognizable humanity to make the lack of menace irrelevant. Much of the film is seen from her perspective as she writes extensive, literate diary entries, and we sense that this gimmick may have worked better in Zoe Heller’s novel where our imaginations create a believable personage by filling in the necessary details on their own. The screenplay makes her loneliness seem contrived and manufactured, and the character herself little more than a prototypical horror villainess: a device of the plot.
That makes the movie unlikely to involve us emotionally, and we’re left to amuse ourselves with the surface pleasures, which are thankfully plenty. Blacnhett and Andrew Simpson, who plays the 15 year-old student whose affair with Blanchett’s art teacher sets the plot in motion, get a good thing going; aside from almost certainly being the envy of his classmates for his several steamy scenes with Blanchett, Simpson does a nice job of making it clear that she is being duped while at the same time making his faux-hangdog vulnerability plausible enough that we believe that she might fall for it. Dench is as good as you might expect — though bizarrely, her performance is so natural and believable that it clashes with the screenplay’s insistence that her character is utterly off the reservation. The lilting Philip Glass score and Richard Eyre’s skillful gloss help make Notes on a Scandal nothing if not highly watchable.
Incredibly enough, the ending employs the old horror film saw in which the villain ominously finds her next victim. Here, I suppose, it’s intended to be sad rather than terrifying, but it’s neither. Rather than elevating horror conventions as I may have hoped, Notes on a Scandal just mixes them indiscriminately with elements of the naturalistic British character drama. It’s conceptually intriguing, but not quite effective.