Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Starring: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson
Directed by: Richard Eyre
In the hands of lesser talents, Notes on a Scandal would probably be unwatchable trash. Make no mistake, the story is quite trashy, a tabloidesque story of sex, adultery, and obsession that relies on scandal, shock, and villainy usually reserved for soap operas and TV movies to propel it forward.
But, it is saved from being the trashy movie its subject matter suggests due to the fantastic performances of its leads, making it a compelling black comedy thriller and a vicarious thrill for the art house crowd. Notes on a Scandal follows Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench), a middle school teacher feared by most of her colleagues and all her students, who tells the story of the new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), whom Barbara befriends, then manipulates after learning of Sheba’s affair with her fifteen-year-old student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Sheba desperately turns to Barbara as a confident, worried that the news will ruin her career as well as her marriage to Richard (Bill Nighy), which Barbara uses to her advantage to deepen her relationship with the younger woman.
It’s basically the Mary Kay Letourneau story by way of London, complete with lurid scenes with Blanchett and Simpson (which I’ll admit were oddly erotic, although very, very wrong, and an example of the achievement of the performers that Blanchett was able to be both titillating and disturbing in these scenes) and an uncomfortable theme of homosexual predation. The script by Patrick Marber, adapted from the novel by Zoe Heller, doesn’t do much to elevate it past TV movie scandal levels, other than some clever quips given to Dench’s character in her role as narrator here and there. The climax of the movie gets away from director Richard Eyre a bit, feeling a little forced, albeit suitably intense.
Despite all of this, I still ended up enjoying the movie, and for that the credit must go to the actors. At this point, saying Judi Dench gives an excellent performance is almost redundant, as she is seemingly incapable of anything but. But it still bears mentioning that the zeal she gives her character charges the whole movie and is good enough reason to watch the movie on its own. The movie might not be able to decide whether Barbara is a pitiable shrew or a Shakespearean villain, but that doesn’t stop Dench from crafting a memorable character who demands your attention. Blanchett’s performance isn’t quite as memorable, as the role isn’t as juicy, but it is strong on its own, and a strong reminder of how striking a woman she is. Another highlight is the supporting role by Bill Nighy, who delivers the best moment in the movie.
Overall, despite its flaws, I still recommend the movie. Given the pedigree of the cast, you’d expect it to be a stuffy, serious movie, but it’s not. Instead, it’s vicarious fun, a racy movie highlighted by strong performances, checking in at a scant 92 minutes. If you’re expecting greatness, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you want above average trashiness, you should be in for a pleasant surprise.