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Expertly-crafted portrait of terror

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Album cover copyright (c) 2007 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall

Director Richard Eyre's adaptation of Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal has won much acclaim, not least for its cast, including Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy and of course Judi Dench, portraying a villainous character for once.  The story sees Dench - a school teacher - wind and manipulate others on her gradual fall off the rails into becoming a true menace.  Eyre's last film - the delightful Iris - featured an excellent score by James Horner, but this time he goes for a composer at completely the opposite end of the film music scale, in terms of how he approaches films - Philip Glass.

While Horner always accentuates emotion, uses his music to manipulate the audience in a way, Glass generally intellectualises things much more.  This approach can seriously limit the number of films which could sensibly feature music by him (though it has certainly been used in others, generally not to particularly impressive results - particularly films with more conventional narrative structures).  It is interesting that many of Glass's dramatic films are of a more literary nature, and sometimes it is as if he has written the score as a kind of tone poem to accompany the source novel rather than the film based upon it.  This music sounds absolutely perfect to someone who has read the novel but not seen the film, yet (as with previous Glass-scored films) many reviews of the film have commented in a negative way about the score.  

However, I'm reviewing the album and not the score in the film.  Glass's hypnotic, mesmerising music often seems to have a slightly overwhelming psychological element to it - and as his score for Notes of a Scandal gradually unwinds into all-out brutality, there is even an air of Bernard Herrmann's remarkable psychological horror scores for Hitchcock and others.  As is inevitably the case with a composer as singular as Glass, there is an overwhelming familiarity about much of this music.  In terms of his film scores, there's not much of a leap from The Hours to this - but whereas that score seemed intrusive and outstayed its welcome in the film, this time round its clear dramatic progression seems ideal.  Everything you might expect is here, in structural terms - Glass is Glass, and so anyone familiar with his past music could have a pretty good stab at what is here.

What the composer does so well is use his typical approach to create a deep and meaningful psychological portrait of Dench's character, swirling with conflicting feelings but retaining a forceful, driving intent.  As the album starts, the music teases and tantalises; by the time it ends, the listener could be almost exhausted from its sheer ferocity.  It would be hard to describe any music from this composer as being "light", but let's say that the score opens with music as close to "light" as you're likely to get from Philip Glass; and it builds and builds to become an intellectual assault by the time it ends.  A cue like "Betrayal" leaves a lasting impact fairly rare in modern film music, the persistent percussive blasts signaling the deep unpleasantness of the events unfolding in the character's mind.

Notes on a Scandalis certainly one of Glass's finest dramatic film scores and, as a standalone musical experience, seems to deserve the amount of recognition it is getting from the various awards bodies - it doesn't quite stir as some of his documentary music, but then many of those films were designed with his music in mind; but in terms of his output for dramatic pictures, perhaps only Kundun packs a bigger wallop.  Highly recommended.


  1. First Day of School (2:40)
  2. The History (2:54)
  3. Invitation (1:29)
  4. The Harts (2:14)
  5. Discovery (2:54)
  6. Confession (1:51)
  7. Stalking (1:52)
  8. Courage (1:44)
  9. Sheba and Steven (1:21)
  10. The Promise (2:40)
  11. Good Girl (2:52)
  12. Sheba's Longing (2:34)
  13. Someone in your Garden (1:52)
  14. A Life Lived Together (3:01)
  15. Someone Has Died (1:59)
  16. Betrayal (3:44)
  17. It's Your Choice (2:38)
  18. Barbara's House (3:48)
  19. Going Home (2:13)
  20. I Knew Her (3:17)