Based on the prize-winning novel by Zoe Heller Notes on a Scandal is a case study in obsessive relationships. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins a London secondary school as the new art teacher fellow teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) who rules her young charges with an iron fist senses a kindred spirit—and perhaps salvation to her lonely existence. But as Barbara notes in her acerbic diary she is not the only one drawn to the luminous Sheba. She soon begins an illicit affair with one of her high school students (Andrew Simpson) and Barbara suddenly becomes the keeper of Sheba’s secret. Barbara could expose Sheba to both her husband (Bill Nighy) and the world but instead Barbara manipulates it for her own nefarious and selfish reasons. And in playing this dangerously compulsive game Barbara’s own secrets come tumbling to the fore exposing the deceptions at the core of each of the women's lives. Dench and Blanchett give tour-de-force performances yet again. Blanchett’s natural effervescence provides the beacon for all the wanted—and unwanted—attention Sheba receives but it’s her fragile emotional state that draws you in. Played like a wounded butterfly Sheba is too weak to either stave off a dalliance with the young gent—played with convincing lustfulness by newcomer Simpson—or tell the stifling Barbara to bugger off despite the consequences. Then there’s Dench as Barbara representing the opposite end of the spectrum as Notes’ driving force. She’s a bull dog whose withering glares stop her students in their tracks and cutting remarks slice her fellow colleagues to bits all punctuated by her caustic running commentary. Still when Barbara turns madly obsessive with her soft underbelly eventually exposed she crumbles with the best of them. And the best part of Notes is watching these two brilliant actress go toe-to-toe for the first time on film. The underrated Nighy also does a fine job ditching his Pirates of the Caribbean’s tentacles to play Sheba’s down-to-earth yet hapless husband. A top-notch cast all around. Director Richard Eyre is no stranger to crafting intimate pro-actor dramas having helmed such films as Stage Beauty and the Oscar-nominated Iris. He understands where to move the camera to best frame his players as they pour their hearts out on screen. And with Notes on a Scandal Eyre knows that besides his two leading ladies the real star of the film is playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber’s superb adaptation of Heller’s introspective novel. Voice-over narration is always a tricky film device but for Notes on a Scandal it’s absolutely essential and Marber faithfully captures the inner-workings of Barbara’s skewed thoughts which she fervently writes down in her diary in such delectable ways. Then he entwines the twisty events around these two women. Much like his other work including the exquisite Closer Marber hands in another true gem. Combined with all this is another haunting pulse-pounding score from Philip Glass (The Hours) who sets the tone so perfectly. Notes on a Scandal is definitely one for the Academy Awards’ books.
Marber who also wrote the screenplay describes Closer as "a love story. It's about other things [too]--sexual jealousy the male gaze the lies we tell ourselves and those we are most intimate with the ways in which people find themselves through using others. But in the end it's a nice simple love story. And as with most love stories things go wrong…" Boy do they ever. In this case the "love stories" revolve around two couples: Dan (Jude Law) a frustrated novelist who falls for quirky stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) after a chance meeting on a London street and Larry (Clive Owen) a boorish dermatologist who falls for esoteric photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) after a chance meeting in a London aquarium. Through happenstance these four people manage to intermix their relationships falling in and out of love with each other at an alarming and brutal speed over the course of a few years. Giving away who ends up with whom would spoil the fun but one thing's for certain--just like in real life these characters are never quite sure if they are truly happy with the final choices they have made.
This movie is an actor's dream--as most plays-turned-movies are--and all four of Closer's protagonists rise to the occasion. Here Law's streak of mediocre films finally comes to an end and he definitely has saved the best for last. In a switch from Alfie's confident lothario Law's Dan is a bespectacled soft-spoken fellow who wears his heart on his sleeve as his love vacillates between Alice and then Anna. As Anna Roberts is Dan's counterpart bouncing just as impulsively between Dan and Larry but playing it far more reserved and aloof. It's a welcomed departure from Roberts' usual perkiness--and probably her strongest performance to date. It is Portman and Owen however who steal the show. Besides a face that could launch a thousand ships the all-grown up Portman is brilliant as the tough-as-nails stripper who is secretly oh-so-fragile and the most honest of the four while Owen best known to American audiences as King Arthur roars on screen as the self-assured Larry a character so full of passion and bravado it's hard to take your eyes off him. Oscar should come calling.
Backed by a major studio and featuring an all-star cast Closer still manages to maintain that indie unpretentious feel--which is just the way director Mike Nichols who made his name making small powerful gems about human relationships such as The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge likes it. And much like the gritty We Don't Live Here Anymore a similarly themed indie released earlier this year Closer doesn't get sugarcoated. The raw language will more than likely hit a nerve and anyone who has ever been in love will spot a few of their own characteristics and experiences. As Nichols explains "Closer concerns itself with the fact that in love we remember beginnings and endings and tend to edit it out the middles…" Being that the film is based on a play the scenes tend to be over dramatized in parts but each juicy intense moment still holds you completely riveted to your seat as the four characters continue to raise the stakes and keep you guessing who is going to betray who next.