A little-known fact about Araneae Arachidna, uncommonly known as the common spider: Only their nimble poise keeps them from tumbling into their webs. The slightest slip, the merest topple, and they’d be in as wretched a condition as the bloodless husks that litter their tacky lairs. In “Notes On a Scandal,” (which enjoyed a limited release on Dec. 25), this delicate mean is most graphically illustrated in London schoolmarm, Barbara Covett (note the last name), whose rule in the classroom is adamantine, but whose grasp of words like “friend,” “secret” and “love affair” are as tenuous as spider silk.
Dame Judi Dench’s Covett is a history teacher in a British school that makes the one in “Saint Clara” look like an accounting firm made over by the Body Snatchers. Vicious football hooligans and wanton almost-women abound, “the future plumbers and shop clerks,” in Covett’s acid baroque. The teachers crouch in the gymnatorium, trading term reports, like beleaguered generals in the trenches. Covett’s is the most succinct: Her classes are “below the National Average, but above the level of catastrophe. Recommendation: No change necessary.”
But no matter how we try to keep things status quo, change has a way of sluicing in through the cracks. At the start of the Fall term, change waltzes into Dench’s life in the liquid form of new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), who is as lovely as an Elf and her namesake together, but as free as a Hobbit, particularly about the loins, which she can’t seem to stop airing out around a treacherously-charming 15-year-old, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), who is determined to pluck this Bohemian rose by means artful and sincere.
When Covett catches a sensuous eyeful of the twosome during a Christmas pageant, this starchy spider sees an opportunity to cinch her snare shut. She takes Hart into her confidence, promising not to tell for the sake of Hart, Connolly and the school (not to mention Covett’s icy groin). Soon Covett is insinuating herself into the family life of her supple obsession, appearing at every lunch, outting (and inning), like some incestuous mother-in-law. Hart’s family consists of a drolly self-amused husband (Bill Nighy), a teenage melancholic daughter (Juno Temple) and a son who suffers from Down’s Syndrome (Max Lewis), whom Covett regards as a flimsy gauntlet between her heart and Hart.
When she’s not haunting the Harts’ steps, like an insufferably-haughty shadow, Covett can be found out at her meticulously-clutter-free abode, adorning her diary with gold stars and musing about everything from lasagna, to the “pubescent proles,” to her only true friend in the world: her dying cat, an uncanny doppelganger of Mrs. Norris, Filch’s feline in the Harry Potter movies.
Of course, everything falls apart spectacularly in the third act, with everyone’s gory doings blared across every tube and telly from Bath to Birmingham. But what’s even more amazing is the way everything falls back together in the end. There are the wounds that cleave, yes, and those which sew us back more strongly than ever. These are the darling themes of director Richard Eyre, whose previous pairing with Dench was the Alzheimer’s weeper, “Iris”. Eyre is a fellow who believes---truly believes---in the all-conquering power of love, not as a Disneyfied platitude, but as an attracting force, binding beyond all reason, even when every particle of logic screams, “Resist!” Love is a jigsaw puzzle. Smash it to bits, the pieces will snap themselves back into place snugger than ever.
“I can’t imagine Iris without me, just as I can’t imagine myself without Iris!” says John Bayley of his dear heart, and here similar sentiments apply. Even Covett, at the end, finds herself returning to her first love: herself, her solitude in her aloof tower, hurling down snide remarks, like Molotov cocktails. For Eyre, love is a pliant stone; bendable, yes; breakable---never!
One of the great charms of “Notes On a Scandal,” as with “Iris,” is seeing a supremely royal woman behave like an utter slob. In “Iris,” we watched the wits of one of the great literary showwomen of our time rust and rot, but oh-so tenderly. Here, we have Dench muttering such crude asides as: “Lasagna doesn’t agree with my bowels; I shall eat as little as possible.” Another double take-inducing moment has Dench “stroking” Blanchett’s arm in ways most titillative. “Did they do this at your other school?” she asks without a wink of shame. The preview crowd I saw this with couldn’t stop snorting with disbelief every time Dench opened her mouth, often laughing before she’d even finished her sentences.
Stripping the iron mail away from our social betters, revealing their pink backsides---this is where Eyre is at his best. We see Dench not in silk-strewn palaces, but in settings both earthy and beige---in simple windbreakers and cardigans. Scenes of tension are shot with jittery hand-held cameras, stifling intimacy, and every window pane bears a film of damp moulder.
These bleak backdrops have a way of humanizing Dench, bringing her down to the contradictions coursing under the crust of the mundane. Dench’s Covett has a stalker’s knack of deconstructing the simplest gestures---a hair drifting onto her lap, the brushing of a hand---as thunderclaps of loving proclamation. When faced with the ugly contraries real humans are composed of, Covett regards them as base treacheries, then tosses people away, like chipped porcelain. She possesses the kind of idealism only a rapist enjoys. Anyone who falls short is cut off, like a gangrenous limb. But witnessing this, we come to realize Covett is her own worst victim. She’s doomed to live in a world which falls forever short of her expectations. In other words, she’s human. We pity her.
To a lesser extent, we pity Blanchett’s character, Hart, a woman who confesses to feeling “entitled” to statutorily rape a 15-year-old, who, in turn, is seducing Mrs. Robinson. There is a great, yawning abyss “between what we dream life to be and what it is”. Hart has resigned herself to a dry marriage, a teachership which is little more than rampant chaos. She’s so far from her dreams of pop idoldom. She’s settled. An affair is her way of reaffirming what she already loves. There’s something almost S&M in her sexual encounters with Connolly. She rips her life open, horribly wounding herself, just so she can have the pleasure of sewing freshness back into her life. “Come into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly. “I have just the tonic to heal your aching heart.”
For once, the spider’s telling the truth.