Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is a history teacher in a London high school. She is a dominating personality, to say the least, and she doesn’t grant her friendship easily. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is hired to be the new art teacher, Barbara believes the young woman deserving of her camaraderie. She is sorely disappointed, though, when Sheba confesses that she has been carrying on a torrid love affair with her 15-year old student, Steven (Andrew Simpson), in Notes on a Scandal.
This is solid, straightforward filmmaking by helmer Richard Eyre who continues his femme-based stories, like “Iris” and “Stage Beauty” (which has its ultra feminine transvestite), with an excellent pair of character studies by Dench and Blanchett. Based on the Zoe Heller novel, What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal, adapted by Patrick Marber, Eyrw introduces us to the stern ministrations of Barbara. What unfolds is a kind monster tale as we watch her clinical, calculated intrusion into Sheba’s life.
Barbara uses her knowledge of her young friend’s affair to insinuate herself with Sheba, secretly hatching plans to make her friend give up her teen amour and drive a wedge into her marriage. Her true colors come to the surface when Sheba refuses to stay with her after Barbara’s beloved cat dies. Then, the monster is awakened to catastrophic results.
Judi Dench, as Barbara, is both pathetic and scary as she puts in motion her scheme to ruin Sheba’s life and drive the younger woman to her for solace and support. Dench gives her character real dimension and you, almost, feel bad for her. Almost. It’s a juicy role and an Oscar-worthy performance by the grand dame but she is up against some pretty big guns with Helen Mirren (“The Queen”), Kate Winslet (“Little Children”) and Penelope Cruz (“Volver”).
Cate Blanchett gives a solid performance as the young wife who falls for the charms of handsome, vivacious Steven. Sheba is given a complex arc as she tries to balance her worlds, all the while unaware of Barbara’s plotting. Andrew Simpson is also quite good as Sheba’s youthful object d’amour. Bill Nighy is pitch perfect as the loyal and loving father and husband betrayed by his wife. He makes a great speech on “just because you think it doesn’t mean you have to do it!” after he learns of Sheba’s infidelity. At first, I thought Nighy too old for the part but the actor makes it work and garners your sympathy.
This is a technically elegant looking movie with master cinematographer Chris Menges giving us crystal clear images and marvelous use of close ups, especially of Dench, allowing us to read her face and what’s behind it. Other behind the camera techs fit the bill, including the score by Philip Glass.
Notes on a Scandal,” because of its femme leads, could be mislabeled as a chick flick. Don’t be fooled. This is a fascinating psychological drama and study of a human monster that should do well with mature audiences. I give it a B.Laura:
Laura gives "Notes on a Scandal" a B+.
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