Sofia Coppola may have just used New Order's "Age of Consent" in Marie Antoinette, but the tune would've made much more sense in director Richard Eyre's trashy new melodrama. Notes on a Scandal pits two of the grandest grande dames of British stage and screen Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett against each other in a sordid tale of blackmail, underage affairs, latent-lesbian stalking and gallons of streaming mascara. It's high camp masquerading as serious cinema, recommended only for those who long to see two distinguished Oscar winners pulling at each other's hair. That said, there may be more than a few Mommie Dearest fans out there who fit that very description.
Before it goes spectacularly off the rails, Scandal seems respectable enough. Dench plays Barbara, a self-proclaimed "battle ax" teaching at one of the worst secondary schools in London (which, compared to some American schools, looks like a meeting of the National Honor Society). Her life of solitude and misery is disrupted by the impetuous new art teacher Sheba (Blanchett), a free-spirited blonde with a seemingly happy family life and a desire to do something meaningful now that her own children are teenagers.
Unfortunately, Sheba's wishes are undermined by her proclivities for pubescent Cockney boy-flesh, an indiscretion glimpsed by instant best-friend-forever Barbara one evening after class. In a mix of envy, attraction and disgust, Barbara decides to turn the screws against her younger colleague: Scolding Sheba for the affair with the student, she claims she won't tell, so long as the two women "share their lives together." The still-fornicating Sheba may think this means consoling Barbara when her cat dies; but for the obsessed battle ax, it means something much more.
With material like this, you'd think the movie would play out like a biting, caustic satire along the lines of Election, and not Fatal Attraction. But Eyre keeps shoving the movie along at the pace of a thriller, with an insistent, police-siren score by Philip Glass that calls to mind the shower scene in Psycho (and not in a good way). There's face-slapping and screaming and thunderstorms and broken mirrors and cigarette smoke, all of it underscored by Barbara's incessant, delusional diary voiceover, which form the "notes" of the film's title. The talented cast makes the fatal decision to play it all naturalistically; they attempt to get under the surface of their hysterical characters and add a relatable, personable element where there is none. After a while, the whole thing feels like kabuki theater, or maybe a really campy drag show. In fact, the best thing you can say about Notes on a Scandal is that it's going to bring down the house when, in 10 years or so, a gay theater stages an all-male revue of it.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].