Notes On A Scandal
Review by Jack Foley
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary from Richard Eyre and much more
DAME Judi Dench has appeared in many different types of role before – from royalty to James Bond’s boss M – but seldom has she played the villain.
In Notes On A Scandal, she creates one of the most chilling baddies in recent memory as a lonely, bitter teacher who develops an unhealthy fixation on a young newcomer (played by Cate Blanchett).
But what makes Richard Eyre’s film all the more compelling is the fact that none of the characters are beyond reproach – not least the so-called ‘victim’.
But just as he did with Closer screenwriter Patrick Marber – working from Zoe Heller’s acclaimed novel – exposes some harsh truths about contemporary morality that genuinely challenge the viewer, while simultaneously setting the stage for an acting tour-de-force.
Dench plays Barbara, an acid-tongued teacher at a North London secondary school who spots a kindred spirit in Sheba (Blanchett), a beautiful and idealistic new art teacher.
Sheba becomes a friend, naively unaware that Barbara may want more, and unwisely opens her heart in the process.
But when Barbara discovers that Sheba is having an affair with one of her 15-year-old students (newcomer Andrew Simpson), she begins to exploit the knowledge for her own greedy ends, slowly embroiling Sheba in a national scandal that has wide-reaching consequences for her career and marriage to her older husband (played by Bill Nighy).
Like any great potboiler, Notes On A Scandal expertly keeps things simmering throughout before bringing things to the boil for a stirring final act.
But then it’s working with some terrific ingredients. Marber’s screenplay is sharp, witty and packed with wry observations, while Eyre’s direction is slick enough to keep things moving at a lively pace. His handling of the more controversial elements is also exemplary.
Rather than feeling voyeuristic or exploitative, the film immerses viewers into a complex moral conundrum that exposes some uncomfortable truths about the age of consent. Yet it never becomes preachy, doing just enough to cast Sheba in as bad a light as Barbara.
Likewise, Barbara is never reduced to becoming a stereotype, her character emerging with an element of sympathy in spite of some pretty dark deeds.
And it’s here that Dame Judi excels, creating a monster while hinting at the innocence that was lost along the way. Many of her early observations, in particular, will resonate with older viewers.
She also displays more with a look or a posture than many actresses can with an entire screenplay.
Blanchett, too, is on top form as Sheba, creating a hopelessly weak character whose actions defy easy explanation (even to herself). Her sense of helplessness is expertly conveyed, while her scenes with Simpson’s brash schoolboy are as seedy and awkward as they ought to be.
Bill Nighy, though under-used, provides a worthy moral compass late on once the women’s secrets are unveiled.
There are flaws, of course. The climax of the film is a little OTT, while the very last scene is unnecessary and feels tacked on.
But it’s a small price to pay for what’s come before – an utterly enthralling social thriller that boasts two leading ladies on electrifying form. The biggest scandal would be to miss out.
Running time: 95mins