Combustible Celluloid
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With: Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Juno Temple, Max Lewis, Tom Georgeson, Michael Maloney, Joanna Scanlan, Shaun Parkes
Written by: Patrick Marber, Zoe Heller
Directed by: Richard Eyre
MPAA Rating: R for language and some aberrant sexual content
Running Time: 91
Date: 12/25/2006

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Teacher Comforts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Richard Eyre's dreadful disease-of-the-week film Iris (2001) was pitched to critics as a year-end award movie, and they took the bait; the film won an Oscar. Now Eyre is back with another year-end film, but this time its sleazy, low-down content guarantees few, if any awards, but it also provides a far more entertaining film. (It strays just a bit into awards territory with a Down's syndrome character.) Based on a novel by Zoe Heller, but also ripped from yesterday's headlines, the film tells the story of a young, pretty art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) who arrives at a London school and meets two people, the lonely Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who has been on staff forever, and the promising student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Steven subtly begins crossing the line between student and lover, and Sheba eventually gives in to his lust. But Barbara also has designs on Sheba; she narrates the film with her diary entries about her connection to Sheba, how they were destined to be together. (Eyre, of course, blurs and mutes the sexual side of this obsession.) When Barbara discovers the affair, she uses it as leverage to get closer to Sheba. Eyre and writer Patrick Marber (Closer) don't quite allow themselves a full, untethered wallow in this sordid stuff, and the film piles quite a bit of dowdy makeup on Dench, stifling her sex appeal (Casino Royale shows just how much she still has to offer). But the spot-on performances make up for it, especially Bill Nighy as Sheba's cheerfully frayed husband. Philip Glass provides the repetitive, but marginally effective score.

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