Friday, January 5, 2007

A film unsparingly details the breakdown of an older, unfulfilled lesbian. Facing problems at work and the prospect of growing old alone, the vindictive hag preys on attractive younger women.

No, I’m not talking about the 1968 cult classic “The Killing of Sister George.” This is the recently released critical hit “Notes on a Scandal.”

Some stereotypes die hard, of course, but how was this one sneaked by the sentinels of political correctness?

The scandal of the film’s title is the illicit affair between art teacher Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett) and a 15-year-old student. But the adulterous Sheba turns out to be the more sympathetic star of the film. The real villain of the piece is her colleague Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench), a predator who uses her friend’s secret to ensnare her.

Miss Blanchett and Miss Dench are actresses at the top of their game, and their performances in “Notes” are receiving raves. So is the film itself — 85 percent of its reviews are positive, according to compiler, 92 percent among the “top” critics.

Even some of those enthusiastic writers, however, admit that the movie might offend certain sensibilities.

“There’s a double standard in the movie world: Where older gay men are generally considered fun-loving, wise-cracking sources of comic relief and literary profundity, lesbians of a certain age are often scary, aggressive, psychotic villains,” Katherine Monk writes in her (mostly positive) review for Canada’s CanWest News Service.

Miss Monk goes on to argue, “Performance value saves ‘Notes on a Scandal’ from dated predictability, and criticisms of blatant homophobia, because Dench and Blanchett convince us in the authenticity of their respective characters.”

That’s cold comfort to one critic. Malinda Lo is the features editor of, billed as “the Web’s top site for queer women,” with half a million readers each month. In an interview, Ms. Lo regrets that an actress of Dame Dench’s caliber chose to be in the movie. “The problem is that many viewers and critics tend to react to the actress first — and her talent — and the character second,” she says. “Her talents simply obscure the stereotypical elements of the character.”

It’s certainly a stereotype with a long pedigree on film. “The dynamic between the two women,” Miss Monk writes, “follows a familiar pattern within the scary lesbian genre, a tradition that began at the beginning of the sexual revolution with the release of films such as ‘The Killing of Sister George,’ ‘The Children’s Hour’ and ‘Les Biches.’ ”

“Sister George” was penned by the late screenwriter Lukas Heller. So perhaps it’s no surprise that “Notes” was based on the Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by his daughter, Zoe Heller.

Except that “Notes” the book is rather different from “Notes” the film.

There’s little melodrama in the book, for example, while the movie is destined to become a camp classic in the vein of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” — another Lukas Heller creation.

“The movie’s Barbara is more thoroughgoingly villainous than the original, with a much more conscious and explicit mission to entrap her victim,” Miss Heller recently told London’s Observer. “Most audiences seem to perceive her as a closeted lesbian with a clear sexual motive for stalking Sheba — and, again, that was not the case in the book.”

Even with the changes, the film has Miss Heller’s approval, though she felt screenwriter Patrick Marber “was trying to sneak in some family values.”

“I am surprised that ‘Notes on a Scandal’ is a British film, to be honest,” Miss Lo says. “The British generally seem to be much more open and accepting of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered] people than the Americans.”

Organizations in this country have gained considerable clout in Hollywood, inducing television networks, for example, to put more homosexual characters on screen. After a screening of “The Jackal” starring Bruce Willis, to take another example, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation pressured the filmmakers into adding footage giving Mr. Willis’ character a motive for killing a homosexual man unrelated to his sexual orientation.

Could a movie like “Notes on a Scandal” have been made in this country, with such likely vocal opponents?

As Kyle Buchanan writes in the Jan. 16 issue of the homosexual magazine the Advocate, “the [Judi Dench] role does not in any way fit the notion of a politically correct gay character.”

“I don’t know whether the British have the same obsession with political correctness that Americans do — I doubt it — but ‘Notes on a Scandal’ is beyond politically incorrect,” declares Miss Lo. ” ‘Politically incorrect’ categorizes something like ‘Borat.’ ‘Notes on a Scandal’ is just homophobic.”

Perhaps the movie simply slipped under the activists’ radar — it was written and filmed across the pond, after all. Or maybe the talent involved earned the film the benefit of the doubt among any activists who might have been worried. Mr. Marber and director Richard Eyre are acclaimed in London’s theater community, known for its collective openness to homosexuals.

In his Advocate article, Mr. Buchanan suggests that individual moviegoers are less monolithic and censorious than their spokesmen in the homosexual rights activist groups. He notes that many homosexuals enjoyed 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which starred Matt Damon as a “gay sociopath.”

“Even 1992’s ‘Basic Instinct,’ ” he continues, “in which Sharon Stone’s bisexual killer infuriated many LGBT filmgoers and organizations, relied on that same audience 14 years later to shore up its campy sequel. ‘Notes’ can claim that same camp allure — between Dench’s clumsy come-ons and the thrill of seeing her play so against type, there’s a lot to howl at here. And for gay audiences used to the saintly, buttoned-up gay lawyers of ‘Philadelphia’ and ‘Will & Grace,’ I suspect ‘Notes on a Scandal’ will provide a bracing alternative.”

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