Notes on a Scandal

2007-06-18 12:39
What it’s about:

Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is a bitter, cynical history teacher at an inner city school. Her life is empty except for her cat, Portia, and her endless shelves of notebooks. In these diaries she writes scathingly about everyone and everything around her. When a beautiful new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), arrives at the school, Barbara quickly pegs her as a posh lightweight trying to give her life meaning by teaching art to the lower classes. Still, Barbara begins to form a strong attachment to Sheba. And when she finds out that Sheba is having an affair with a student, Barbara gains a dangerous power over her.

What we thought of it:

The world is a cruel place when Helen Mirren and Judi Dench are nominated for Best Actress Oscars in the same year. Mirren richly deserved her win for The Queen, but after watching Notes on a Scandal you can’t help feeling that Judi Dench might have been slightly robbed.

A consummate actress, Dench draws us into the mind of a desperately mean and repressed old woman who has nothing to do but manipulate lives and events for her own entertainment. Or, as she puts it, to create a “a show” for herself. We never see “Judi Dench playing a stalker”, all we see is the bitter, lonely Barbara.

Despite having a loving husband and family, Sheba, is also terribly lonely. Superbly portrayed by the ever-ethereal Cate Blanchett, Sheba is plagued by sadness over her lost youth, believing she has no value or power without her beauty, which is gradually fading. It is this crushing insecurity that makes her seek affirmation in the arms of a 15-year-old student, Steven Connelly. He makes her feel wanted and allows her to escape the fact that she has achieved little in her disappointingly normal life.

But, while Sheba’s loneliness is fuelled by low self-esteem, Barbara’s is fuelled by repression. She is obviously lesbian yet can never admit it, not even to herself. Years of denial have made her a controlling and malicious figure, desperate for affection at any cost. This is what attracts her to the gentle Sheba, who shows her kindness and compassion.

This small act triggers a dangerous obsession, which is brilliantly conveyed through the use of narration. In most films narration is a redundant device used by directors who can’t tell a story properly or can’t resist being verbose. But in Notes on a Scandal, Richard Eyre has used it to great dramatic and ironic effect. Barbara narrates events as she records them in her diary, but as the film unfolds we see how the actual story doesn’t match her version.

In this way, Notes on a Scandal shows the true nature of obsession. It is not about bunny-boiling or black roses. It is about an intense infatuation that grows gradually into something more frightening, constantly fed by the obsessor’s own demons.

Yet Sheba is not just the object of obsession, she suffers from it too. Her irrational desire for a young boy is disturbing, especially as she is so fragile and loving. The difference between her and Barbara is that she fully understands she is doing something wrong. She only half-heartedly tries to justify the inappropriate relationship and knows it cannot last, while Barbara genuinely believes that her and Sheba will be together one day.

The supporting performances are all brilliant, with Bill Nighy pitch-perfect as Sheba’s cuckolded husband and Andrew Simpson showing a remarkable maturity as Steven. However, it is the actresses who make Notes on a Scandal a must-see.

Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are sublime in their portrayal of two tragic women – one flawed and one damaged beyond repair – whose lives collide with devastating consequences. They are doomed, and their emotions are so brutal that the faces of Barbara and Sheba will haunt you long after leaving the cinema.

- Amanda Whitehouse
The acting genius of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett will keep you riveted to this fascinating story of obsession and loneliness.

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