From literature to pulp fiction

This could have been a taut drama; instead, it's a squalid red-top exposé

<strong>Notes on a Scan

If the cast and crew of Notes on a Scandal pooled their respective awards and prizes, the glinting of statuettes would be visible from outer space. Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy head the cast. Off-screen are Scott Rudin, who produced The Hours; Patrick Marber, who wrote Closer; and the director Richard Eyre, whose theatrical reputation has helped excuse a so-so film career. It would be no surprise if the on-set catering came courtesy of the Ivy.

The unintentional joke of the film is that all this class has been put to work on what is essentially trashy fun. Claude Chabrol would have made something taut out of Zoë Heller's novel about a lesbian teacher who becomes obsessed with a younger colleague. But Eyre is not in that league; he transforms it into a film as squalid and titillating as a red-top exposé.

As the vinegary Barbara Covett, grande dame at a north London comprehensive, Dench is hilarious and disquieting by turns. We fear "Barb" - the abbreviation is almost too apt for this spiky creature - from the moment she silences a classroom of rowdy teenagers with the merest narrowing of the eyes. Later we discover that she attracts restraining orders the way the rest of us get junk mail. But Dench's compassionate performance ensures that we experience regular pangs of sympathy for Barb. How could we not, when she's the only human character in the film?

Into her mothballed life breezes Sheba Hart (Blanchett), the new girl in the staffroom. Sheba is popular but out of her depth, and when Barb intervenes to help with discipline problems, she is overcome with gratitude. Barb becomes her confidante. When she discovers that Sheba has been sleeping with Steven, a 15-year-old pupil, she uses this knowledge to pressure her new best chum into pledges of increasing intimacy. Sheba's husband, Richard (Nighy), can only wonder at the spell that this frumpy woman has cast over his wife. During a confrontation in which he and Barb almost break into a tug-of-war match over Sheba, Philip Glass's score seems to resort to Morse code, sending out distress signals that none of the characters can decipher.

The film finds a cinematic equivalent for Barb's role as the novel's unreliable narrator. In voice-over, she trills: "No one can violate our magnificent complicity," a claim that is contradicted instantly by a shot of Sheba and Richard larking around on the sofa. But as the picture accelerates toward a Silence of the Lambs-style pay-off, such subtleties are trampled underfoot. Odd things start happening, not because they should, but because this is a thriller. Sheba spots a screwed-up sheet of paper in Barb's wastebasket and has a closer look, simply because the writer can't think of a more elegant way to nudge the plot along. And she daubs her mouth with lipstick and messes up her hair, again for no good reason - this is just how people behave in films when they're cracking up.

Notes on a Scandal reveals flashes of insight into how we remake one another, and ourselves, to fit predetermined fantasies. Barb is deflated when she realises that her darling Sheba is mother to a temperamental daughter and a son with Down's syndrome: it doesn't square with her romantic daydreams. And Steven knows that he must exaggerate those areas of his working-class background that will intrigue the bohemian Sheba. Most of the characters are in denial, as we see from the disparity between the plush cinematography and what it is showing. When the camera swoops down to observe Sheba's rendezvous with Steven beneath a railway bridge, we are seeing her glossy spin on what is, in reality, a miserable tryst.

But this film, too, is in denial - a prestige picture that never fully owns up to its pulpy, low-rent origins. In its favour, however, it boasts the wittiest use of product placement in recent memory. Agonising over her affair with Steven, Sheba pulls out a box of dishwasher tablets, only for the brand name to offer some unbidden but conclusive advice: Finish.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.