November 13, 2008

Trans-Genred -- Every Step You Take, Judi Dench Will Be Watching You

When I decided to start writing about films that are more horrific and traumatizing than you'd ever expect, this one instantly sprang to mind. Everyone knows that Dame Judi Dench is an intimidating woman. Her scowl has probably earned her more millions than Pamela Anderson ever made off of her breast implants. The decision to cast Dench in her very own monster movie was a truly inspired one -- in Notes On a Scandal, her character joins the ranks of Norman Bates and Annie Wilkes as a human monster whose isolation has fermented into psychotic mischief...

Nothing on the surface hints at what a sublimely creepy movie Notes on a Scandal is -- it's all in the peripheral details. The diabolical tone is established right away by a nerve-shredding Philip Glass soundtrack (anything good you remember about Candyman would be null if someone else had scored the movie).

Dench's character, a self-described "battle-axe" of a schoolteacher, does a fair job of letting us know just how caustic and untouchable she is via divinely bitchy voice-over narration. She paints herself as impenetrable, but the filmmakers are thoughtful enough to paint us another picture, delivering occasional lush still-life tableaux, expertly arranged to expose the truth behind Dench's calculated facade. Observe:

Hmm. An overflowing ashtray. Figurines and face-cream. An issue of Your Cat and a trowel full of fresh grave-dirt. The stench of howling desperation is purely rolling off this end-table in great grey waves (perhaps that's what the Tic-Tacs are meant to cover up). It's sort of the suburban equivalent of Tony Perkins' room full of stuffed birds. Except here at the Dench Motel, the only person you'll ever find slumped in the bathtub is the proprietress.

Dench soliloquizes as she soaks: "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..."

As you can imagine, she is ever so much fun to hang out with. Even at her friendliest, she looks like she's plotting how to stop those Whos down in Whoville from making so much noise on Christmas morning. Despite the smile, you can practically hear the spiders running around in her brain.

It's not her face you have to watch out for, though, it's her hands. Like Gary Oldman's shadow in Dracula, they always seem to be doing something extra-creepy when you're not paying attention.

Dench does some real grade A, Nosferatu-worthy lurking in this movie, always on the prowl for juicy young flesh to draggle her carbuncular old claws across. But since she's only a metaphorical vampire, she doesn't have to hide in the dark, in fact she can be quite frank about her needs:
"When I was at school, if one of us had had some bad news or was a bit down, we used to stroke each other. You know, someone would do one arm, and someone else the other... It's a wonderful sensation... Incredibly relaxing for the giver and the receiver..."

Oh she gives it, alright. Suffice to say that although this attention is accompanied by a compliment about how good she looks in that top, Cate Blanchette has to obey her own rising gorge and wriggle out of Dench's cat-hair encrusted clutches.

Of course, if this was the extent of her perversion, she'd just be that friend of your mom's that everyone has to avoid at holiday parties once she's had a third glass of wine. But no, this is a situation where you need to keep tabs on every single strand of your hair unless you want it to turn up in a scrapbook.

This business with the hair is just one of many shades of the Rapunzel story that bleed into Notes On a Scandal (the other characters often refer to Dench as a crone or a witch, and that's even before she actually has a fair damsel locked up in her tower). What makes this so effective as horror is the fact that director Richard Eyre has turned two incredibly capable actresses loose on material with real psychological heft. The last hour of this movie is like a crazy cage-fight in which the ladies duck and grunt, swinging verbal pipe-wrenches at each other's skulls.

As my dad would be quick to point out, no one really wins that kind of fight. Crazy is like toothpaste, there's really no getting it back in the tube. Hence, Blanchette has no choice but to put on her best Courtney Love and give the British tabloids what they came for.

It's pretty obvious that Dench adores making a monster, and that Blanchette is having the time of her life playing Faye Wray/Mina Harker -- and like all good monster movies, the ending definitely leaves room for a sequel. How this film can be categorized as a mere "drama," however, is less obvious, and I mostly attribute it the lack of imagination that marketing departments are famous for (they could've at least given in to the temptation to provide a couple of poorly shot, gore-soaked alternate endings just for the DVD). Nevertheless, Notes on a Scandal will always have midnight-movie status at my house, so anytime you're in the neighborhood at 11:58, come on over. Bring Your Own Face-Cream.

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