A pleasant surprise
By Lady Liberty
Notes on a Scandal
*** 1/2 out of ****
I wasn't particularly keen to see Notes on a Scandal despite Oscar nominations for stars Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. I'm not big on what I typically (along with guys everywhere) call "chick flicks." My girlfriend, however, was, and she convinced me to go. I think I owe her one.
Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench) is the proverbial old maid school teacher at a middle school somewhere in London. She and her cat, Portia, live alone in a small garden-level apartment. Each evening before bed, Barbara writes about her day in her journal. Her observations and opinions are often acerbic, sometimes humorous, and never less than to the point.
Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is a relatively young and free-spirited artist hired as the new art teacher at the middle school. Her Bohemian dress and carefree attitude is more than once the target of some of Barbara's more biting journal entries. But one day, Barbara helps Sheba to break up a fight between two students. Sheba's gratitude and Barbara's willingness to mentor the younger woman serve as the foundation for a fast-growing and close friendship between the pair.
It's not long before Barbara is drawn into Sheba's eclectic family. Her much older husband, Richard (Bill Nighy) is witty enough to entertain Barbara, and endears himself to her even further with his bemused tolerance of his wife's foibles. Her children — a teen-aged daughter and younger son with Down's Syndrome — also make Barbara feel as if she's actually a part of the family herself.
But Sheba has a secret, and Barbara is stunned to one day stumble across it. Sheba is having an affair with a student at the school (Andrew Simpson), something that's both against all of the rules and which offends Barbara on a deep, personal level as well. The two women must somehow navigate their relationship past what now appear to be some very dangerous shoals indeed, and the way that each proceeds serves to sweep them ever closer to disaster.
Dame Judi Dench is nominated for an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of Barbara Covett, and she deserves to be. Whether she's joyful, disapproving, amused, or broken-hearted, she's never less than completely real on screen. Cate Blanchett is also well deserving of the accolades she's received. The story told her is touchy at best, and Blanchett does a magnificent job of making us feel sympathy for an utterly unsympathetic predicament. Her own railing against her better judgment is also more than a little stirring. Meanwhile, Bill Nighy's confused hurt and the cocky attitude of Andrew Simpson provide beautiful support for their performances. In fact, there's not an actor who appears here who's less than very, very good, and more than a few are even better than that.
Notes on a Scandal is based on the novel of the same name by Zoe Heller. I've not read the book (on the way out of the theatre, I did hear one woman say, "Well, that was certainly better than the book!"), but I loved the script by Patrick Marber. Marber, who penned the utterly brilliant Closer, was no less astute in his depiction of complicated relationships here. It's a rare movie that finds you laughing, righteously indignant, horrified, and weeping — all of them repeatedly — and at the same time tells an utterly compelling story.
Director Richard Eyre did a fine job of showcasing his actors without letting them chew up the scenery or descend into the melodramatic. The cuts and the edits were perfect; his attention in particular to the private moments in Barbara's life was nothing short of genius. Perfectly believable sets and costuming rounded out a presentation that, either in parts or as a whole, is beautifully done.
I thought that Notes on a Scandal was just terrific. While the performances alone make it worth the ticket price, the movie is so much more than that. We're still talking about it, and still raving about it to everyone who will listen. If this is a movie that you didn't particularly want to see, I urge you change your mind. You'll be glad you did. I sure am.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Notes on a Scandal is rated R for "language and some aberrant sexual content." This is not a movie for children for obvious reasons. Although there's no graphic sexuality, it is implied so strongly as to be inappropriate for those under the age of 16 or so. In addition, the situations depicted here — both those with and without the student lover in question — involve adult matters as well. I suspect that those particularly sensitive to uncomfortable sexual scenes will also not enjoy this movie, at least in parts. But for everyone else, I recommend Notes on a Scandal in the strongest possible terms.
Letters From Iwo Jima
*** out of ****
Last year, director Clint Eastwood released a wonderful movie entitled Flags of Our Fathers. It told the story of World War II's Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of several young American soldiers. Most notable among them was a medic who survived, went home to father a son, and whose son eventually wrote the book on which the film is based.
Letters From Iwo Jima is a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers. It tells the same story, but from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who were ordered to engage in a futile defense of the island. Most of the story is based on actual letters sent home to Japan by soldiers stationed on Iwo Jima. Many of them were written by the General in command to his son.
The movie begins as the Japanese prepare for an American invasion force they know is coming. The troops are instructed to hold the island at all costs. It is feared that, if the island is lost, the Americans will use it as a platform from which to launch attacks directly on the Japanese homeland. Among those soldiers put to work digging trenches on the beach is a poor young baker named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). Saigo is newly married, and writes incessantly to his pregnant wife. His letters are a poignant counterpoint to the rough and deprived life he leads on the island.
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is given command of the forces on Iwo Jima. It's a difficult job. Not only is the defense of the island itself an uphill battle, but he must somehow integrate — and gain the cooperation of — troops from different branches of the armed forces. It doesn't help that some of his ideas conflict with those previously in charge, and he's accused of having a soft spot for the Americans. Kuribayashi, it seems, spent several years in America, but he doesn't have a soft spot. What he has is a healthy respect for the number of men and the massive munitions the country is capable of throwing at his small island!
General Kuribayashi is surprised one day by the arrival on the island of his friend, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara). The former Olympic champion (Nishi won a gold medal in horse jumping at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics) is now a member of the Japanese cavalry and has been permitted to bring his horse to the island with him. Together, the two discuss their predicament and realize that their situation is hopeless without reinforcement from elsewhere. What neither realize at that moment, of course, is that no reinforcement will be coming soon — or, in fact, ever.
When the Americans finally arrive, it's to discover Kuribayashi has had his men dig deep into Mount Suribachi and the surrounding area. From their tunnels, the Japanese soldiers endure the days of American bombardment. Though frightened and disheartened, they're largely unharmed and ready to give the Americans a real fight when they finally land and begin to make their way across the dark sand beaches. But from the beginning, the troops can see what the General has long known: the fight is a hopeless one, and all they can do is die with honor.
We all know that nearly all of the 22,000 Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima died in that lengthy battle including (it is presumed) General Kuribayashi (his body was never identified, and conflicting stories of his final moments were told). What most of us in this country probably didn't know, at least until Letters from Iwo Jima hit theatres, is just how much the soldiers of both sides actually had in common.
The letters from men of either side in the conflict could, but for the language, have been interchanged. These men loved their wives, their children, and their mothers. They believed that they were fighting for their country and their way of life. They were horrified by various acts of war and inhumanity played out in front of them — and nearly as horrified when they found themselves committing similar deeds. They were terrified but fought bravely despite their fears. And they learned only too late just how human and how like them their enemies really were.
Once again, director Clint Eastwood combined location filming on Iwo Jima with film shot on a volcanic beach in Iceland (the Japanese government won't allow even the pretense of battle on an island which is now effectively a shrine to the dead of both countries) to great effect. Leaving the soldiers to communicate entirely in Japanese was also, I believe, crucial for the realism of the film. I also loved the lack of color in the movie. Grey volcanic sands, dingy uniforms, dusty skin, dark caverns, and the smoke from artillery was relieved only by the stark gold of flames and the red of flowing blood. Casting, too, was just terrific, with Watanabe his usual more than competent self, and Ninomiya and Ihara giving wonderful supporting performances to back him up.
Clint Eastwood has made a worthy counterpoint to Flags of Our Fathers in Letters From Iwo Jima. I was especially moved by the way some scenes dovetailed with the other movie, but which were viewed from an entirely different angle. More important than that, they were viewed from an entirely different mindset. If you liked Flags of Our Fathers, you'll appreciate Letters From Iwo Jima as well.
I can't say I loved the movie because it was, in fact, heart-breaking to watch (as, frankly, was the earlier film). But I did find it a fascinating and very real look at a side of history I knew little about and which was told without apparent bias. Although I'm no less glad that America prevailed in the battle, I admit to having some sympathy and a good deal of respect and admiration for those men who fought and died for the other side. This is a story that desperately needed to be told, and I'm truly pleased that Eastwood saw fit to use his formidable talent and influence to see to it that it was.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Letters From Iwo Jima is rated R for "graphic war violence." It's also subtitled, which further makes the movie unsuitable for young children. Those old enough to appreciate the history lesson, though, especially those who know only the American side of the story, will likely enjoy being educated in such a moving and realistic way. Letters From Iwo Jima is a fitting tribute to some very brave men, many of whom didn't want to fight (including a reluctant General who remembered his American friends fondly), but who upheld their honor to do so anyway.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.