Predator vs. Predator
Notes on a Scandal, brilliantly adapted by Patrick Marber from the darkly comic Zoë Heller novel, is a grim piece of work — Fatal Attraction for the art-house crowd, minus the fearful misogyny. Set in a dreary London where a gray funk of fog and cigarette smoke hangs over everyone’s head like a gathering storm, Notes fits perfectly into the milieu of the man who made even Julia Roberts, that ray of million-dollar sunshine, seem gloomy and pitiful in Mike Nichols’ 2004 film Closer, which Marber adapted from his own play.
Here, he works his dark magic on Cate Blanchett, playing a beautiful prep-school art instructor blessed with the spirited name Bathsheba Hart. Blanchett is a vision in thrift-store duds, a beauty tethered to a frustratingly middle-class existence with her slightly disheveled older husband (Bill Nighy) and their two children.
“Marriage and kids, it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t give you meaning,” she tells the confidante who becomes her betrayer, played by Judi Dench. To fill the void, Sheba heads down a self-destructive path: an affair with a 15-year-old student named Steven (Andrew Simpson).
But Steven isn’t the only one trying to woo Sheba. A friendless teacher at the school, Barbara Covett (Dench), covets the pretty young thing — as a friend, she would have us believe as our unreliable narrator. But as her friendship with Sheba blossoms from that of colleague to confessor, Barbara documents each occasion in her diary with puppy-dog delight.
Marber and director Richard Eyre (who directed Marber’s earliest plays at the National Theatre in England) wisely let us in on Barbara’s secrets far earlier than Heller does in her novel. Marber’s Barbara, unlike Heller’s, is not to be liked for a single second. We see her as she really is: vengeful, vile, crazy. Still, everyone’s a predator in this tale: Sheba feels “entitled” to fuck around with a 15-year-old. Barbara finds a way to one-up Sheba, emotionally blackmailing her until everyone ends up a sordid lot deserving of their fates. Just where Marber wants them.
The tension builds till you expect some mighty tragedy to befall these people. But Marber, tinkering slightly with Heller’s novel, finds greater tragedy in the simple, final ruin created by the keeping and sharing of secrets. Dench appears withered, as though she’s decaying from the inside;Blanchett shrinks just a little bit more from scene to scene. The result is less a cautionary tale than an absolute horror story in which everyone winds up looking like the walking dead.