“Notes on a scandal” is a 2006 movie adapted from a novel by Zoë Heller. It is about two female teachers at a comprehensive school in London, Barbara, played by (Judi Dench) and Sheba (Cate Blanchett). Both actresses were nominated for Oscars in their respective roles but the Oscars went to Helen Mirren for “The Queen” and Jennifer Hudson for “Dreamgirls” that year. Anyway, Barbara, a lonely old spinster, has a growing affection for Sheba who is caught up in an unhappy marriage with two children. Sheba then starts having an affair with one of her 15 year old students. When Barbara finds out about the affair, things start to get complicated. As the movie tagline says “One woman’s mistake is another’s opportunity”.
What I like most about the movie is its pace. Since the story line is dark and heavy, there are multiple scenes that involve the outpouring of intense emotions between the characters and it is truly exhausting to witness them but the director (Richard Eyre, previous works include “Stage beauty” and “Iris”) ensures that the audience is given short breaks in between these emotionally-charged scenes. For example, during these short breaks, the music score is minimal to nothing at all which snuggles down the tension and provides a much-needed relief. Also a narrative told from the perceptive of Dench’s character, Barbara, from her diary occasionally appears. It is indeed a smart move by the script writer, Patrick Marber also because this narrative style storytelling gives a chance to stay true to the book (nominated for Man Booker prize, 2003)’s beautiful literary expressions. (His marvelous screenplay was rewarded with an Oscar nomination but he unfortunately lost out to William Monahan for “The Departed” that year.)
In addition, the development of the characters is subtle yet effective and swift. I particularly like the way the story reveals the important details and background information as the two central characters develop. For example, how Barbara finds out Sheba is married to an older man (fantastic Bill Nighy) and living with two kids only when she goes to her house for lunch. That is also when the movie audience finds out who Sheba is. A scene like that, especially when cleverly and delicately done, not only gives an entrance to the new important characters (Sheba’s husband, her teenage daughter and down syndrome son) also builds up the film’s tempo and audience’s anticipation. Fast camera works (at times following the characters as they move) and dramatic score enhance the thrilling experience as well. “Notes on a scandal”, has got enough chills and thrills of a horror movie although it is definitely not classified in that genre. You just can’t help but anxiously wonder what will happen next and how the story will end.
Needless to say, two power house performances from Oscar winning actresses, Dench and Blanchett, are just splendid. Watching them play these multifaceted characters is like watching two skilled seamstresses intricately weave a beautiful immaculate piece of fabric together. They play these characters with such meticulousness, devotion and zest. In my opinion, Judi Dench’s portrayal of Barbara Covett is the equivalent of Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the lambs”. Quiet and restrained but absolutely haunting and disturbing. Blanchett, of course, is not to be outdone here either. One of the finest actresses of our generation not only holds her own against the brilliant Brit but also delivers what maybe her career best performance in films. Her character, Sheba, plays with fire, gets herself burned and in the end, gets totally consumed by a hopeless, helpless situation. With this role, Blanchete explores a woman’s vulnerability, desperation, complexity and most importantly her angst, lust, guilt and sorrow. One of the most memorable scenes for me is when Sheba has to choose between her special need son‘s school performance and Barbara who is mourning for her dying cat. Barbara’s ulterior motive jumps out in her most fragile state and she demands sternly that Sheba stays with her. Sheba, confused, scared and appalled, goes through a brief period of moral dilemma but she undoubtedly chooses to go with her son. From then on, it is a steady climb towards the climax of the story which I should not reveal. All I can say is “WHAT A DRAMA!” One of the best movies I have seen in a while. I give 5 stars out of 5.