Notes on a Scandal opens as such a devastating study of a familiar archetype that you spend the rest of the movie waiting for the mechanics of the plot to betray it. Judi Dench, as a dour history teacher at a failing London school, narrates the events leading up to her initial meeting with the woman who will become her obsession, and as we listen to her bilious words, it’s like peeking into the diary of every miserable spinster who ruined your pre-adolescence.
Dench’s Barbara has long given up on the ideals of teaching, which, after 30 years, she likens to crowd control. At a staff meeting, she’s content to report on her students’ progress as “below the national average but well above catastrophic.” She shows no evidence of connection to her students, despises her co-workers, and goes home at night to her sad basement apartment, accompanied only by her diary and her cat.
She’s even initially skeptical of Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the “willowy novice” who descends upon the school’s art department and blindsides Barbara by asking her to coffee and then to Sunday lunch. Intimidated at first by Sheba’s beauty, Barbara is stunned by the younger woman’s frank admission of her own vulnerabilities and “selflessly” adopts the role of mentor. Soon, however, Barbara discovers Sheba’s secret — an affair with a 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson) — and uses the knowledge for emotional blackmail. With only Barbara to confide in, Sheba must do what the older woman says.
Because we’re so accustomed to stories of unrequited erotic obsession ending with, say, Rebecca de Mornay impaled on a picket fence, it’s a pleasant surprise that Notes on a Scandal — despite a plot hoary enough to hinge on the discovery of an illicit diary — uses this setup to explore the disastrous effects of a woman’s everyday loneliness. Barbara, who could well be a virgin, vocally abhors the “teach through nurture” post-self-esteem-era academic environment that traps her. But given the obvious pain of her repressed homosexuality, it’s easy to see how she resents the freedoms of the younger generations. She scorns Sheba’s “bourgeois bohemia,” yet she’s mortally jealous of Sheba’s exterior appearance of having it all. Sheba, meanwhile, feels tremendously insecure in the roles of wife/mother/educator and pines for her Siouxsie and the Banshees-worshipping, aspiring-artist youth. She’s also, crucially, a bloody fool, albeit one played deftly by Blanchett as dim and self-absorbed in a plausible way. You believe she’d be too preoccupied to pick up on Barbara’s manipulation.
Dench rips into screenwriter Patrick Marber’s more lacerating dialogue (he’s adapted Zoe Heller’s novel What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal) with gusto. (Marber also wrote Closer, and yes, we get lots of knife-edged rhetoric and obligatory use of the C-word). But the more Barbara tries to control Sheba’s feelings, the less she actually succeeds, and Dench is never better than when she’s portraying Barbara losing her grip on her own emotions — not as a psychotic harridan but as a profoundly solitary person. The performance works in fascinating contrast to Dench’s turn last year in Ladies in Lavender, in which she played a far gentler lonely spinster in love with a boy who washes up on the beach near her cottage. In both films, the impact of unrequited love on a woman who will never know what it’s like to be loved back cuts to the bone.
Director Richard Eyre, who was hamstrung by the deadweight miscasting of Billy Crudup and Claire Danes in his last effort, Stage Beauty, seems energized by his two formidable leads. He’s made the year’s shortest (90 minutes), leanest Oscar-bait showcase, and if the Philip Glass score occasionally threatens to Philip Glass™ the movie to death, it also gets under your skin.
Bill Nighy, as Sheba’s much-older husband (they met when she was his student), again proves a master of doing a lot with a little, and Simpson, as the jailbait, has a genuine junior-lothario vibe made all the more unsettling by the fact that he barely looks even 15 (whew … IMDb says he’s 17).
If, in the end, Notes on a Scandal feels most notable for successfully avoiding its Lesbian Fatal Attraction pitfall potential, it still deserves praise for what it achieves: An impassioned exploration of the type of woman few people — let alone filmmakers — stop to think about.
Notes on a Scandal / Rob Watson
Film | January 17, 2007 | Comments ()