Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday Monologue: Barbara's Revenge

"They always let you down in the end"

My contrarian opinion of Dame Judi Dench is that sometimes she phones it in. How many ways can one play the quippy unfazeable grande dame? But in Notes on a Scandal, she's unimproveable. Faced with the atypical character of "Barbara Covett", Dench rises and soars. The film's politics are horrendous: boo hiss --an evil predatory spinster lesbian attempts to destroy a heteronormative marriage! [my reviews] But the actress is magnificent, giving the film a metronome precise drip drip of theatrical malice.

My favorite sequence in the film runs from Barbara's inconsolable grief for her lost feline, through the resulting perceived betrayal by Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), who doesn't have time to console her, to the exquisite sequence when she is confronted with another teacher with amorous feelings for Sheba. She boils with vengeance in mind.

Barbara: You'd like me to ask Mrs Hart if she's inclined to commit adultery with you? I don't want you to suffer more than is necessary. No one should. I couldn't possibly speak for Mrs. Hart but instinct tells me you might not be her type.
"She's got a type, then?" is her co-worker Brian's sad response. The film has a few exquisite and small supporting turns and Phil Davis (also terrific as the husband to Vera Drake) is aces in this scene, all befuddled crush turned to shell shock.
Barbara: Oh it's no reflection on your attractiveness. My impression is that her preference is for the younger man...surprisingly young; Boys, I'm told. Naturally she doesn't discuss any of this with me but I've been hearing some rather alarming rumors about one in particular.

Playground gossip, staffroom whispers and so on. You might know the boy in question. Ummm... Stephen Connelly.

Brian: Your tea.

Barbara: I think the kettle's boiled.

[V.O.] You say the words and it's done. Easy. Judas had the grace to hang himself. But only according to Matthew, the most sentimental of the apostles. Is this the last night of her old life? I wonder how long my messenger will take?

People like Sheba think they know what it is to be lonely but of the drip drip of long haul no end in sight solitude, they know nothing. What it's like to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the laundrette or to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor's hand sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. Of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.
Dench's every line reading is carved out of the tough bark of decades of loneliness and cynicism; if you could cut through Barbara's hardened shell, you'd see disappointment and repression expanding like rings in an ancient tree. As the words escape her, she sharpens them to a lethal point with fermented emotions and curdled wit, wielding them like weapons. Earlier in the film, Barbara refers to herself as a battle axe. For a woman drowning in self-delusion, it's a surprising lucid self-assessment.


Dame James said...

Dame Judi Dench "phoning it in" is still 100 times more interesting than three-quarters of actresses four or five decades younger than her. I could listen to her cut people down to size all day.

I just watched Notes on a Scandal again a couple of weeks ago and I'm still in awe of that performance. That monologue is one of the most brilliant acting moments of the decade. Dame Judi nails the character right there.

In 2006, I would have voted for Meryl, but the more I think about it, the more I think Dame Judi gave the better performance (or at least the one I want to revisit over and over again).

Catherine said...

Whatever about making homosexuality seem oerverse, this film did nothing for the reputation of people who keep diaries! We're not ALL stalkerish loonies, you know. *weeps* [/marginalised]

Catherine said...

That should be perverse, obviously. See? Without my diary, I can't even SPELL.

Anonymous said...

As a repressed lesbian I was deeply offended by this film. I thought Dench's outfits were horrendous. How could she think she'd get any pussy with those awful blouses ?

Anonymous said...

"The film's politics are horrendous: boo hiss --an evil predatory spinster lesbian attempts to destroy a heteronormative marriage!"

Isn't that a teensy bit exaggerated? Isn't complete acceptance by a society also being allowed to show fatal flaws in everybody ? This time the evil bitch happens to be gay... In The Devil Wears Prada she was straight.Big deal.


anonymous --if it was an isolated incident sure... but the evil spinster lesbian goes way back in cinema. and from the very first chords in the score your meant to fear this woman precisely FOR her sexuality.

plus the character who sleeps with a minor is forgiven by the film and allowed to return to a marriage that will somehow go on... but the spinster evil lesbian will just continue to prey on young girls.


it's very similar to fatal attraction. The married "normal" person can make sexual mistakes and be forgiven for them by the film and audience but the "other" must be punished.

i reject that.

but i still love love love Dench's performance


p.s. i think it's the best work Dench ever did on film.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on that one, Nat.

My friend even said at the end of the film "She's gonna do the same with the new one"... gee, she was just trying to find a partner, it's not like she's Hannibal Lecter.

I think she's also "punished" for being attracted to younger women... as if straight men weren't attracted by younger women as well.

I despise that homophobic sous-texte


Robert said...

Judi Dench immediately made every old lady teacher I had in grade school immensely more interesting.

In hindsight that is. I had one who did, in fact, go crazy.

Cinesnatch said...

Hmmnn ... Nate, what is your take on Fatal Attraction then, if not ...
an evil predatory spinster STRAIGHT WOMAN attempts to destroy a heteronormative marriage ... ?

Cinesnatch said...

ooopss ... just read your post ... lol ...

I felt the same way about how Michael Douglas got away with it. But, in fact, the original ending sends him to the slammer for Close's death. It's up to the wife to figure it all out and find the evidence to exonerate (msp.) her husband.

For some reason, I was more forgiving of Scandal. Maybe it's because Blanchette is a woman and Douglas is a man. But, you have to admit, Blanchette caught more heat (from her husband, her lover's mother, etc.) than Douglas did.

Anonymous said...

IDK, Dame Filmbitch. I'm usually pretty sensitive to the gay stereotypes that too often rear their heads in films. But I didn't have problems with Notes. I found the film less a demonization of a predatory lesbian, more a (pretty accurate?) reflection on a society that would redeem a child molester before a repressed older lesbian. The scene in which Judi's on-screen sister asks whether or not she's seeing "anyone" sticks with me as an example of her exile from normalcy.

If Judi'd found happiness in the end, wouldn't we balk at how unrealistic a film it was?

Anonymous said...

Now think again and give Dench that Gold Medal. You know Streep's Miranda could never beat this performance. Just a blonde stunt, you know, from a great actress. It's not this deep and controled portrait of rage and loneliness. Think again.

- cal roth

par3182 said...

as a keeper of diaries, a cat lover, a person who lives alone and on occasion has been attracted to a younger person of the same sex, as well as being reasonably proficient in the art of the withering putdown i'd just like to say...

i love barbara

The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

And yet a Brit phoning it in seems to still be more forgivable than an American phoning it in.

Kurtis O said...

Nat - I have not been by to comment in quite some time, but when I saw a monologue from "Notes on a Scandal" posted, I couldn't resist. This was one of my very favorite films of '06, a stunning match-up of two of the world's finest actresses. And if I may, I was just as entranced by your exquisite writing as I was by the words from "NoaS"'s script in this post.

Glenn said...

1. I adored Dench's nominated phone-in work in Mrs Henderson Presents. What can I say? I'm partial to a grand dame.

2. I like to take the same tact as Dusty in regards to NoaS. As if it's sort of asking us to make our own minds up in regards to whether Dench was a loony psycho or if Blanchett deserved to be forgiven, while also playing with camp.

ryan said...

Par --you crack me up.

Kurtis --thank you.

Cal --i don't do take backs ;) but yeah, i always second guess my self. there's 3 women i want to give the gold medal too. but theat's true most years

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making it possible that we can all weigh in on a subject like "Notes on a Scandal", Dench., etc. Great Blog, Good comments, and FABULOUS ACTING in that film!

Seriously, Dench is genius no matter how you slice it! The first glance of her "phoning it in" is really her ability "making it look so flipping easy". In all reality, WHO COULD REALLY DO WHAT SHE DOES!!?? REALLY??
Friggin' brilliant!

She is just ALWAYS so *present* and *being the character*.
Then to have both Dench and Blanchett (another unbelievable genius who is so *present* & amazingly *in the moment*) in the same the same scenes together!? JUST PERFECTION for any storytelling!

Marber's script was pretty brilliant, aside from only a few trite moments (the *stroking scene* seemed a little too hetero male fantasy), otherwise it was truly en pointe.

Dench, Blanchett, Eyre (another total genius - whether for theatre or film - totally amazing!), and Marber.
A truly brilliant and phenomenal cocktail of artists and artistry!

Thanks again for the Blog and the topic to comment on.

Unknown said...

I'm a big Judi Dench fan... in my personal awards which I've made since 2000, she's been nominated for 3, an amazing feat and won for Notes on a Scandal.

Her work in this film is electrifying. The line-up that yr was excellent (1.Dench, 2.Mirren, 3.Streep, 4.Winslet, 5.Cruz for me) and had a 3/5 with my personal ballot (Watts and Dallas Howard instead). However, Dame Judi's performance rose from all the others delivering one of the decade's best.

Michael B. said...

She was my win last year. And then a second place tie (Winslet and Cruz) and Mirren in 4th and Streep in 5th. I believe this is the ONLY time that when I've done nominations they have matched 5/5 with the Academy...

Glenn Dunks said...

Mine was

1. Cruz (Volver)
2. Streep (Devil Wears Prada)
3. Barclay (Suburban Mayhem)
4. Linney (Jindabyne)
5. Dench (Notes on a Scandal)

Anonymous said...

Yes, in a rare year of me matching up 5/5 with Oscar, Dench took the Gold from me:
1) Dench
2) Cruz
3) Streep
4) Mirren
5) Winslet

But you know I worship her in whatever, whenever. And that includes Mrs Henderson when, in the absense of Joan Allen, I also think she should have won!


Anonymous said...

Judi Dench doesn't ever "phone it in", and in "Notes on a Scandal", she was bloody brilliant. If I didn't love Helen Mirren in "The Queen", I would have easily picked Judi Dench to win the Oscar that year. Check her out in "Cranford" right now where she's rocking it too.

Anonymous said...

I really think Barbara is not necessarily a lesbian. She's lonely in a destructive way and this is all movie says about the character.

Anyway, Dench was my #2 last year. Here's the top 5:

1. Bonham Carter (Conversations with Other Women)
2. Dench (Notes on a Scandal)
3. Gyllenhaal (SherryBaby)
4. Cruz (Volver)
5. Bening (Running with Scissors)


strong list there. I still haven't seen HBC's movie. but i like the rest of your list.

BROKEN RECORD: i'm still baffled as to how Helen Mirren managed 100% consensus with so many great female performances surrounding her.

Anonymous said...


1. Mirren
2. Dench
3. Winslet
4. Gyllenhaal
5. Cruz

Nathaniel, what a breathtakingly well-written, sharp-eyed critique. I'm very jealous right now. And it's made me want to watch the film again. Right now.

Vikram Johri said...

Wow, what a post! My thoughts exactly, especially the tub scene. Marvelous!!