Sunday, May 13, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

My definition of a really effective horror/thriller film is one that makes you feel completely out of control, that there is absolutely no clean way to get out of whatever situation you're in, and one that fills you with such dread and anxiety that it's almost unbearable to watch. That's how Notes on a Scandal made me feel. Ultimately, nothing that the characters do in the film (to me) is that bad, but they're bad enough to reap irreversible, and catastrophic results.

One of the first things I ever learned about screenwriting is that nobody thinks they're a bad person. Your villains have to have a real motivation, and be human, and behave in ways that could be rationalized, even if it's by a slightly unstable person; otherwise they're not scary. Nor are they believable. If this movie accomplishes anything in spades, it's casting Judi Dench as one of the most cold-blooded but sympathetic villains you're ever likely to encounter on the screen. Throw in a biting and hilarious wit, and you've got the recipe for a woman so consumed by loneliness and isolation, and desperation, that she'll do anything for a "friend." Except, for some reason, her friends always end up taking out restraining orders on her.

Dench's character in the film is also a lesbian (more or less), which I thinks only works in the film in a non-offensive way because she's an old lady. She belongs to that last generation of gay people, I think, who really did view homosexuality as a life sentence of single-dom and isolation. The fact that her character feels so removed from the world around her (and so attached to her kitty, Portia, that the cat's death is what sends her over the edge), and so absolutely bitterly desperate for a connection with someone is more sympathetic in the old (in general) than in someone young, or even middle-aged.

One stupid mistake by Cate Blanchett's character is what sets off all the action and terror is this superb thriller, and it's a doozy. The film flies by like a great thriller should, keeping me biting my nails the whole time. You're really set up to care about the characters; not a single one of them is one-dimensional, even the teenage boy that is the object of Blanchett's lust. Everyone has justifiable reasons for the things they do in the film, even if the justifications are dubious at best. They're there, and you understand them, and you think, "there but for the grace of God go I." Loneliness and not just the desire, but the consuming need, for a connection with another person are the names of the game. And just like a killer in the midst, you never know when you will be the next to be struck.


Tom Drew said...

I really agree with your assessment of what makes Judi Dench's character inoffensive. It also ties in with what you said about how the movie reminded you of all those old films documented in The Celluloid Closet. It certainly had that vibe to me. How do you feel about the final scene, if you view the film as part of that earlier tradition?

The Fire Next Time said...

That's a really good question. I'm not sure. That final scene is one thing that really drove home the predatory nature of Dench's character, but again, revealed her as someone who's terminally lonely. Though, yes, crazy. Ultimately, I think the film would have been better off without it. I'm conflicted about the message it was trying to impart, as in, I have no idea wht the movie was trying to say in that last scene.

I'll have to get back to you on that. This movie has stuck with me, though. I've been thinking about it all morning.

bryan h. said...

During the Awards seson, I thought this was a dry-ish drama about... I don't even know. I'v heard more about it in the last few weeks, and now I'm really excited to see it. It's near the top of my Netflix queue, and I'm looking forward to it.