Notes from the Blanchett-Dench seminar for young actors

by Glen Baity

Some actors, left unrestrained, can swallow a movie whole.

By way of example, let’s take Al Pacino in 1992’s Scent of a Woman. If you’ve seen it as many times as I have, you can probably remember that the plot revolves around a blind ex-Marine who fools a prep school scholarship student into accompanying him around New York for a delightful tour of the senses. You might remember that the kid, played by a farcically outmatched Chris O’Donnell, was on the verge of being kicked out of school, having been sold down the river by his rich-boy classmates. This all leads to a feel-good and entirely implausible climax – reminiscent, in retrospect, of nothing so much as Animal House – wherein Pacino holds forth, before a crowded assembly hall, on what makes “a Baird man” (principal attribute: “He’s not a snitch”).

But if you haven’t seen the film since its theatrical release 15 years ago, what you probably remember most is: Hoo-ah! That, and maybe the tango scene.

Now Pacino’s a great actor, and I love that movie. But make no mistake: Pacino is the movie. He definitely deserved a Best Actor statue, but he and he alone also deserved to win Best Picture.

Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are easily in Pacino’s class, if not one or two ticks upward, but Notes on a Scandal is a textbook example of a film that thrives on great performances without becoming about those performances. It uses shopworn themes of infidelity and jealousy to astutely examine solitude and the resultant longing for human connection. The very-near-perfect performances of its two female leads are only its most obvious attribute, but there are plenty of others that don’t fetch the viewer’s attention until well after the final fade.

Blanchett plays Sheba, the newest addition to the faculty of a rough British prep school. An aged punk rocker, she finds it difficult to assume her desired role as the hippie-dippy art teacher when her students insist on beating the crap out of each other and generally ignoring her best efforts as a mentor. Sheba is heartened, then, to gain the patronage of Barbara (Dench), a hard-nosed, unpopular and universally feared colleague with a veteran’s grasp of classroom management.

The two embark on a warm friendship, soon enjoying the easy, mutual comfort of lifelong companions.

Which is exactly, we learn, what Barbara has in mind. Through a series of voiceovers, spoken as the character scribbles in her exhaustive diary, the viewer learns that Barbara, underneath her dour veneer, is quite lonely, and prizes nothing above all-consuming loyalty. That her new friend has other obligations in the form of a husband and two children, one of them mentally challenged, is simply a situation to be dealt with.

But Barbara is a character of layers. First and foremost there’s the thick crust that declares, laconically, that this old history teacher is no one to trifle with. Sheba chips away at that veneer, finding as her reward a quiet and lovely person with whom to pass idle weekend afternoons.

Underneath even that, however, lies a third layer, a fanged jealousy that strikes for the jugular when threatened. Sheba unwittingly runs afoul of this beast when she begins an ill-advised affair with one of her 15-year-old students (Andrew Simpson). Barbara’s rage is evident, until she realizes the turn of events for what it is: a gift-wrapped tool by which to draw Sheba ever closer.

The unraveling of Sheba’s personal life, and Barbara’s role in it, drives this compelling character drama. Really, enough good things can’t be said about how well Dench and Blanchett work together here. It’s the performance of a lifetime for both women, high praise in careers as illustrious as each of theirs.

There is, however, a gap in the otherwise strong writing that asks the audience to believe Sheba is, and has been, desperately unhappy. Though that may be the case in the source material (the film is based on a novel by Zoë Heller), when the viewer first sees her with her family, she appears, with nary a hint to the contrary, quite content in her role as mother and caregiver. She even seems to have a strong relationship with her husband, wonderfully played by Bill Nighy, and none of it seems dishonest.

When the affair takes off, however, the viewer must believe that Sheba was really miserable all along, both in her marriage and life in general, though little, if anything, is given in the way of explanation.

That conceit is easy enough to overlook, as director Richard Eyre propels the narrative forward, aided by Phillip Glass’ driving, menacing score. The film threatens to go off the rails at its climax, which turns on a poorly staged meltdown between the two women, a scene that contains the only piece of overacting in the whole film. Notes on a Scandal is strong enough to overcome that, however, as the final moments wrap up this memorable film in the manner of The Silence of the Lambs. Blanchett and Dench deserve all the praise they’ve received so far for these tremendous performances, and all that will come now that the film is in wide release. Young actors, take note: this is how it’s done.

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