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The Reeler Blog

"And Here I Was Being Offered This Funny Old Lady..."

As far as anguished, predatory lesbian misadventures go, Notes on a Scandal (opening today in New York, read Michelle Orange's review here) may be the film of the year. Judi Dench stars as Barbara, an ur-frump high school teacher whose 30-something colleague Sheba (Cate Blanchett) repels, then captivates her imagination with willowy blond pulchritude to spare. Alas, a big-sisterish friendship between the sociopath and her married-with-kids muse frays into thinly veiled courtship and then outright blackmail as Sheba is discovered having an affair with student Andrew Simpson. Secretly outed by Barbara as jealous revenge for both relapses and other adulterous advances, Sheba endures a media crush and social ostracization from which only Barbara can offer reprieve.

It's a stunning detour for Dame Judi and her fellow Oscar winner Blanchett, neither of whom flinch at the soapy, scenery-grinding wallow their characters face in director Richard Eyre's melodrama. "It's much more of a ride than people think it's going to be," said screenwriter Patrick Marber, the Closer scribe who adapted Zoe Heller's source novel for the actresses. "People think, 'Oh, God, it's going to be sort of a well-made, English piece of dowdy realism.' And it's not. It's quite camp, and it's totally entertaining."

For the most part, he's right; Dench is a gleefully wretched woman scorned, and Blanchett pairs vulnerability with culpability in a clever, sympathy-teasing tangle. As Sheba's older husband, however, Bill Nighy somehow manages to outdo even his castmates' hysteria; combined with Philip Glass's overbearing score, his performance cues viewers to all but cover their ears.

Marber told me in an interview last month that he sensed a similar danger once producer Scott Rudin enlisted him for the adaptation: How does one balance dynamics with all this pitched gracelessness?

"When I read the book, I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be really difficult to do,' " he said. "But I really wanted to do it because I thought that Barbara was just a hilarious movie protagonist -- such an unlikely protagonist for a film to have this mean old lady. It seemed like not the usual material that people would offer me for a start. Normally I get offered tortured romances with youngish people. And here I was being offered this funny old lady. That was attractive to me."

The challenge was especially severe for Dench, Marber continued. "Judi had played a lot of extraordinary characters, but never someone who was this miserably ordinary," he said. "So I think that was part of the thrill for her; she's quite a feisty person. She was never worried about how mean and unattractive Barbara was; she was worried people would just hate her. But we always said, 'No, no -- she's funny. People will love her in their way.' And I think they do."

Posted at December 27, 2006 3:15 PM

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