© 2007 Ray Wong
Based on Zoe Heller's psychological novel, Notes on a Scandal has a very straightforward, no-frill premise, which is encapsulated perfectly in the movie's tagline: "One woman's mistake is another's opportunity."
Barbara Covett (Dench) is a veteran schoolteacher at a lower-middle class district in London. She's well-respected, feared even, but she has no friends or family. She takes a special liking to new art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett), a beautiful bohemian who's rather bored with her life as a middle-class wife and mother. Barbara quickly becomes friends with Sheba, even though they don't have much in common. Barbara tries to keep her obsession with Sheba in check, until she discovers a stark secret -- Sheba's having an affair with an underaged student, Steven Connoly (Simpson). Furious at first, Barbara promptly turns her discovery into an golden opportunity to lure, hook and hold Sheba.
Barbara becomes Sheba's ally, promising to keep the secret in exchange of Sheba's loyalty. Sheba vows not to see Steven again. Their friendship grows as they are bound by this secret, and Barbara deftly works her way into Sheba's life. A series of events unravels the trust between them. Feeling betrayed and abandoned, Barbara decides to punish Sheba while positioning herself as Sheba's only hope.
Dame Judi Dench (Casino Royale) dons a ratty wig and frumpy clothes to play the spinster who prays on younger, naive women. The great actress gives a performance that transcends the otherwise stereotypical caricature. As the narrator (through her journals), Dench gives us a chilling insider view of her mind, emotions, and schemes. There's actually a sympathetic side to her predatory creature. Cate Blanchett (Babel) is also phenomenal as the naive school teacher who has a fatal flaw in her character. She, too, manages to keep our sympathy while we may loathe the things she does. The relationship between her and Judi Dench seems genuine, making this strange and complex relationship worth watching.
Bill Nighy (Pirates of the Caribean: Dead Man's Chest) is affecting as Sheba's doting husband 20 years her senior. His self-deprecation as well as good nature make it easy to feel sorry for him. Andrew Simpson (Song for a Raggy Boy) is cocky and aggressive as Sheba's young lover. It's a little unconvincing to think that someone like Sheba would risk everything for this boy, but his active role in the matter makes it easier for us to give Sheba a break.
Writer Patrick Marber (Closer) is a genius with words. His dialogue and narratives are sharp and insightful. Judi Dench's voice-over has a cold, analytical quality to it, as if a professor is narrating the details of dissecting a frog. There are times when the narrative overpowers the drama itself; thus the story comes off as a bit too cerebral and on the nose. We know Barbara's every thought, and we anticipate her moves, and she doesn't disappoint. That takes out some of the suspense. Granted, this is not really a thriller, but a psychological drama. Still, I think the writer could have trusted the actors more (who are fabulous) and left more to the audiences' interpretation.
Also, I don't know if it's the fault of the novel or the screenplay itself, but I find some of the motivations and plot points contrived and unconvincing. For example, the circumstances under which Barbara discovers the affair are too text-book convenient. And when a fellow teacher knocks on her door one evening asking her about Sheba, the scene strikes me as absurd and unrealistic, simply to move the plot along. And if not for the wonderful, layered performances of Dench and Blanchett, their characters could very well be described as stereotypes.
Director Richard Eyre (Iris) has a wonderful, almost claustrophobic style which is perfect for this film. Philip Glass's haunting but repetitive score serves the film well. Eyre makes good use of imageries to suggest and provoke, meanwhile leaving the drama to unfold without making overt judgment. It's the characters who are judging each other, and Eyre lets us see their reactions to the same events through an almost distant eye.
It's not to say the film is void of any real emotions -- it has plenty; but from Barbara's cold narration to her conniving manipulations to the tricky subject matter of pedophilia, the film naturally keeps the audiences at a distance. No doubt it is an intelligent, well-performed drama that explores the psychology of people who play mind games. However, the film is a few notes short of being completely involving.
Stars: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Juno Temple
Director: Richard Eyre
Writers: Patrick Marber (based on Zoe Heller's novel)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language, some aberrant sexual content
Running Time: 93 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 9
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.4 out of 10