Directed by: Richard Eyre
Premise: Barbara, an old school history instructor (Judi Dench) becomes fast friends with Sheba, a free spirited art teacher (Cate Blanchett). When Sheba begins an affair with a fifteen-year-old student (Andrew Simpson), Barbara takes the opportunity to insert herself into Sheba’s life, blackmailing her and manipulating Sheba into abandoning her family.
What Works: Notes on a Scandal is a Hitchcockian thriller that demonstrates a psychological complexity above and beyond other films of its kind. Judi Dench has a complicated role that requires her to take a fundamentally unlikable character and make her sympathetic. Patrick Marber’s screenplay and Dench’s performance use wit, humor, and deviousness but also empathy to create one of the great antiheroes in recent film, on par with Al Pacino in Scarface and Ian McKellen in Richard III. Rather than just an obsessive maniac, Notes on a Scandal makes Barbara very empathetic through her love of her cats and the character achieves a credible sense of sympathy when her pet dies. Blanchett’s role as the teacher who has a sexual relationship with a student is very well executed and Blanchett brings a naiveté to the role that makes the seduction understandable in context but does not excuse her actions. Unlike some other stories of this kind, Sheba is not a femme fatale or a monstrous predator, but a more complicated human being who has made poor choices. Notes on a Scandal breaks away from similar films by making Sheba’s husband (Bill Nighy) more than the foolish, unappreciative, or abusive husband that forces the wife into someone else’s arms, as is usual in these kinds of stories. Instead, the film makes him a likeable and sympathetic figure who becomes a victim of Sheba’s actions. Notes on a Scandal is able to unify itself in the intertwined lives of Sheba and Barbara, as they are shown as women who are lonely and dissatisfied with their lives and how their craving for a connection with another human being is twisted into predatory behavior.
What Doesn’t: The seduction of Sheba is the one weakness of the film. It happens very quickly and the film skims over much of what happens between them before the sexual relationship.
Bottom Line: Notes on a Scandal is a successful thriller and psychological drama that makes some frightening and penetrating discoveries into the extent to which people will go to relieve their loneliness.
Episode: #126 (January 14, 2007)