It’s spring (though you’d never know it from the temperatures here in Manhattan) and supposedly love is in the air. So it’s only fitting to revisit the chilly “love story” of NOTES ON A SCANDAL (2006). Judi Dench stars as a lonely, spinster high school teacher who forms a friendship with the new art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett), until she catches Sheba involved in an affair with one of her underage students. Positioned as major Oscar bait at year’s end, Richard Eyre’s direction is taut and Patrick Marber’s script makes the most out of a basically sleazy storyline, but the film rests on the deservedly Oscar-nominated shoulders of its two leading ladies, especially Dench’s brave, fierce performance.
With his trademark rhythmic and melodic cells, Philip Glass‘ Oscar-nominated score ratchets up the tension to the nth degree. The film begins with Barbara’s (Dench) signature music—an oboe solo over churning strings. Glass spent over a week on this cue alone. “The trick was to describe Barbara but to hint that there’s more to her than we’re seeing,” he said in an interview at the time. “When you listen carefully to the theme, you’ll hear that there are all kinds of funny ornamentations to the melody, and implied harmonies that don’t quite belong there. I tried to make it both ingratiating and disturbing at the same time.”
Glass used the oboe “because it has a richness and wiliness to it that worked with [Barbara]. It’s very rich and at the same time very elusive….[It’s a] very melodic piece of music which has a kind of strange harmony to it, and you might not think about it, but it makes you wonder who the character is. There are a lot of, let’s say, funny notes in it. It’s almost slippery—you’re going along with something that seems very traditional and it starts sliding off in strange directions.”
The theme changes as Barbara turns into the “spinster from hell,” and Glass adds more and more instruments in the process. “You first hear strings and woodwinds, and it’s rather gentle in a certain way, and by the end, it’s extremely dramatic and the music is very confrontational. So what I had to do was leave room–I knew where we were going, but the big thing in the orchestration was how things were added in. It couldn’t be a suddenly different score in Reel 5 or Reel 6. It had to slowly—although sometimes unexpectedly when the moment came—show a different side of itself. So when we get to the end, there’s percussion and brass, and it’s very heavy. At the beginning, it’s a very delicate, warm orchestration.”
Just as Dench and Blanchett find layers of humanity under the schlocky trappings of the story, Glass adds some poignant layers in the music. The ascending string motif underlying the plaintive French horn solo captures the sadness of Sheba’s conflicted emotions as she willingly succumbs to the damaging affair. And Barbara’s oboe perfectly captures the lonely existence she has carved out for herself.
Glass’ music is front and center for much of the film and critics took notice. The Los Angeles Times called it “a chilly urgent score,” while the New York Post said, “The mood is greatly abetted by…Philip Glass’ edgy score.” David Edelstein inNew York magazine called the score “a study in egregiousness—the usual busy undercurrents with a top layer of bombast. But it does suggest something of Barbara’s turbulent inner life, and it gives the picture momentum.”
But some critics were not amused. Ty Burr in the Boston Globe wrote, “The one mistake in Notes on a Scandal is its music: a Philip Glass score that tootles loudly in the usual circles and pushes the film toward a horror movie that’s not happening, at least not in a way to which we’re accustomed….this one is more obvious than anything that happens onscreen.”
Manohla Dargis in The New York Times also complained of Glass’ “serial intrusiveness,” but she was spot on in her assessment of the film overall—”The performers sell the goods, but the goods are cheap.” And that’s ultimately the problem. It’s a trashy, sordid tale that’s been told many times, though seldom with such excellent actors.
While Glass’ score contributes to the thriller elements more than some viewers would like, there are levels of subtlety in the music that don’t come across at times onscreen. While some critics and fans preferred Glass’ lovely and subtle work for THE ILLUSIONIST that year, NOTES ON A SCANDAL—for better or worse—is hard to ignore.