Based on Zoe Heller’s novel What Was She Thinking?, 2006’s Notes on a Scandal is a drama-thriller in the mould of films like Fatal Attraction and Single White Female. It’s a movie which burrows into the human psyche in order to explore the deepest, darkest recesses of obsession and loneliness. On top of this, Notes on a Scandal is very much an acting main event which brings together two of the greatest actresses of this generation – Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett – and pits them against one another. Suffice it to say, the resulting flick is sublimely engaging.
An elderly battle axe of a teaching veteran, Barbara Covett (Dench) enjoys writing in her diary on a constant basis, chronicling fantasies and experiences as she gossips for her own entertainment. Past the age of 70, Barbara is approaching retirement, and has become overly cynical and disenfranchised with today’s youth and school system. Enter naïve new high school teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett), whose idealistic aspirations exceed her abilities, and who has trouble fitting in with the experienced educators. Sheba finds a good, strong friend in Barbara, though, and the pair hit it off marvellously. However, Barbara soon witnesses Sheba having a sexual tryst with 15-year-old schoolboy Steven (Simpson). She agrees to protect the secret, but begins advising Sheba on what to do about the situation, all the while harbouring a more sinister agenda.
Notes on a Scandal is so effective thanks to its penchant for fascinating character psychology. With the narrative framed by voiceovers in the form of entries in Barbara’s private journal, we are invited into Barbara’s head from the very outset. On the surface Barbara seems like a sweet, frail old woman, but her acerbic internal thoughts provide an effective snapshot of her calculating mind that’s overloaded with pretentious, unforgiving thoughts as she discusses her recent conquests and schemes. Barbara is the antagonist of the film of course, and your sympathies will likely be with Sheba due to how human she is, but Barbara is nevertheless fleshed-out and three-dimensional enough that you cannot flat-out label her as a bad person. Another strong suit of Notes on a Scandal is the dialogue, which is consistently engaging. Screenwriter Patrick Marber (who also wrote Closer) has done a phenomenal job of translating the book to the screen, leading to a much-deserved Oscar nomination.
Marber’s script was magnificently brought to life by director Richard Eyre, whose efforts keep the film moving forward at a swift pace with literally no lags or boring patches. Sure, it’d be easy to craft a great movie with such a superlative script and this ensemble of fantastic performers, but it fell to Eyre to keep the film tight and disciplined; a task he fulfilled magnificently. Such luminosity extends to the Oscar-nominated score by Phillip Glass, which is permeated with layers of strings to add further dimension to the onscreen action. On a less positive note, though, Notes on a Scandal falters as it approaches the finish line. Writer Patrick Marber lightened up the tone of the ending of Heller’s book, leading to a poor final scene that feels too mainstream-friendly. Ultimately, the conclusion does not match the story’s potential, and it flames out on a note of “meh” rather than staying true to the dark emotional intensity preceding it.
At its heart, Notes on a Scandal is a masterclass of acting, with Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett perfectly bringing life to their flawed, multifaceted characters. Dench has consistently shown that she’s a versatile actress, but here she manages to surprise us yet again. While the role asked for Dench to be cruel and callous, she also had to sell the character’s vulnerability as well as Barbara’s sweet old woman exterior. Remarkably, she pulled it off. This could be Dench’s finest performance to date; she’s a tour de force, tackling the role of Barbara as if it was tailored for her. Her work is deliciously rich as well, making multiple viewings absolutely essential in order to catch all of the nuances on display. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett is a perfect acting foil for Dench. Enthralling and emotionally dense, Blanchett inhabits the role; you feel as if you’re seeing Sheba instead of just Blanchett. Not to be overlooked, the often comically-oriented Bill Nighy proves here that he’s a strong dramatic actor. His interactions with Sheba and his Down Syndrome-suffering son are perfectly naturalistic and convincing, and a scene discussing Sheba’s schoolboy dalliance proves that Nighy can handle intensity and emotion.
Student-teacher relations are certainly a topical issue in this day and age. Such criminal offenses are alarmingly common, and each case often gets plenty of press. A very adult film, Notes on a Scandal tenderly explores these types of relationships within the context of a transfixing psychological thriller brimming with emotional intensity. Viewers expecting a Dench/Blanchett pair-up to play for more a conservative or mainstream audience are advised to take note of its subject matter before watching.