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Notes on a Scandal

By: Mark Moorhead

Jan. 20, 2007

Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) was a lonely, frumpy-looking, middle-aged history teacher at St. Georges, a working class London public high school. She kept to herself and her old habits, making no effort get along with colleagues or inspire a single student until the day Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) arrived.

Sheba was the new art teacher at St. Georges. She’s young, bright and enthusiastic. As far as Barbara was concerned, Sheba was a breath of fresh air at this stuffy school for slackers. But, more importantly, Barbara found in Sheba someone interesting and intelligent enough to talk to and confide in.

Dench’s character narrates the film from a journal she keeps. It’s a radical departure from her more familiar role as “M” in the James Bond series.

Barbara and Sheba become quick friends, sharing ideas and personal history over lunch and coffee breaks week after week. The content of their conversations, along with Barbara’s opinions of Sheba’s family members, are duly recorded in Barbara’s journal. She writes that Sheba’s husband (Bill Nighy) is “unworthy” and her daughter “spoiled.”

Barbara lives alone with her ailing cat. When she is invited for dinner at the Hart home, she shares her excitement in private with the audience. We’re happy for her and feel sorry for her at the same time. What follows is the dark side of Barbara previously concealed. It hovers above her facial expressions and body language after she arrives at dinner. There’s a subtle tension and jealousy that underlies her evolving friendship with Sheba with every line she adds to her journal. She is both repulsed and attracted to the bohemian lifestyle that Sheba embraces.

This newly formed friendship is suddenly shattered when Barbara accidentally discovers Sheba with a young male student (Anderson Simpson) in a compromising position. Instead of reporting the shocking and illegal relationship to the authorities, Barbara decides it’s an opportunity to control her younger friend. Barbara gives Sheba an ultimatum: End the affair or face the consequences. Sheba agrees to behave but is too weak to break the relationship with the good- looking young man, whom she continues to woo every day.

Barbara reassures Sheba that the indiscretion will be their little secret and coyly revels in their tight new bond. However, when Barbara finds Sheba in the arms of the young student again, the bond is almost broken, accompanied by another warning and another false promise.

Tension builds quickly, culminating in a pivotal scene where Barbara is grief-stricken over the death of her cat, and demands that Sheba skip her child’s school performance and mourn the loss with her.

Few actresses are talented enough to convince an audience that the death of a cat is tragic enough to sacrifice attending an important event in your child’s life. Dench is one of them. She can be one scary lady. If I was Sheba I would have skipped the play and paid my respects.

Based on Zoe Heller’s novel What Was She Thinking, the film focuses less on the actual scandal itself and more on the complex relationship between the two teachers and between Sheba and her husband. Fortunately, Blanchett does not portray Sheba as a ditsy young teacher with an uncontrollable libido. Instead the extremely talented Blanchett presents a vulnerable, emotionally fragile woman dealing daily with a loud, demanding husband, a rebellious daughter and a son with Down syndrome. We know her character is an irrational, foolish woman. Yet, we find Dench’s caustic and sinister character more disturbing than Blanchett’s, thanks to both of their superb performances.

If you’re thinking this is a story about a scary lesbian you’d be wrong. It’s much more than that. Notes On A Scandal is a well-crafted exploration of unequal female relationships and loneliness. It’s about the emptiness of not having a close friend to confide in and the desire to be young again. In film-critic speak it’s a cross between Fatal Attraction and Lolita. The good news is no rabbits are boiled alive and no one gets killed.

General Audiences: A

Academy Award level performances by Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are reasons enough to see this film. London Public school teacher finds kindred spirit in new staff member until an illicit affair triggers a series of unfortunate events. 

Family Audiences: Rated R for language and some aberrant sexual content. Not a family film.


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