Judi Dench as Barbara Covett
Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart
Bill Nighy as Richard Hart
Andrew Simpson as Steven Connolly
Tom Georgeson as Ted Mawson
Michael Maloney as Sandy Pabblem
Joanna Scanlan as Sue Hodge
Shaun Parkes as Bill Rumer
Emma Kennedy as Linda
Syreeta Kumar as Gita
Philip Davis as Brian Bangs
Wendy Nottingham as Elaine Clifford
Tameka Empson as Antonia Robinson
Leon Skinner as Davis
Juno Temple as Polly Hart
Directed by Richard Eyre
“Notes on a Scandal” rises above its modern-day thriller roots due to its superlative script and the three amazing actors who can properly do this story justice.
The friendship between elderly schoolteacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) and the school’s new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), is threatened when Barbara learns that Sheba has been sleeping with her 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson), starting a chain of events that could potentially destroy both their lives.
The psychological thriller has been a cinematic mainstay for good reason, because really, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing what seems like a normal life or relationship falling apart and then seeing what people get up to when something like that happens. Although the basis for “Notes on a Scandal” was the bestselling novel by Zoë Heller, it might just as well have been influenced Hitchcock or ’80s thrillers like “Basic Instinct” and “Fatal Attraction” with its premise of a lonely spinster who becomes obsessed with her beautiful, younger co-worker.
As we’re introduced to each of the players via the journal entries of Barbara Covett (Dench), an elderly spinster and school marm who becomes taken with the school’s new art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett), “Notes” comes off more like a dark comedy than a thriller due to Barbara’s witty observations, delivered by Dench with a dry and biting wit that cuts her fellow coworkers to the core. When Barbara comes to Sheba’s aid during a classroom scuffle, they become quick friends, but Sheba has a secret, and when she confides in Barbara with it, the older woman decides to use her knowledge to hold a form of control over the attractive younger teacher.
Barbara is a surprisingly unglamorous role for Dench, dressed down as a sad and lonely woman looking for love or affection, but going about it all wrong. Sheba’s also a fascinating character, a wispy former Goth girl who married her older school teacher (a “crumbling patriarch” in Barbara’s words, played by Bill Nighy), inherited his two kids including a boy with Down’s syndrome, before becoming enamored and seduced by her charming student. The relationship between these two women makes up the crux of the film, but Barbara’s interest in Sheba goes far beyond friendship, and it’s obvious from early on that her deeper feelings are unrequited. When Barbara catches Sheba having sex with a student, the film suddenly shifts gears turning into a full-blown thriller where Barbara suddenly has some leverage with the younger teacher to become closer, but things spiral out of control as Sheba continues the affair.
Both actresses are absolutely fantastic when on-screen alone, but when they’re together, it’s magic, as they deliver a quick-fire repartee that elevates the film beyond its sometimes predictable plot twists. There’s also something deeply amusing about watching respected actresses like Blanchett and Dench getting into a catfight, even though its more about the way they deliver their words than the conflict itself. That’s because the movie is driven by Patrick (“Closer”) Marber’s brilliant script, which expands the distinctive tone of Zoë Heller’s novel into a sharp and witty piece that maintains its inherent humor even when it starts to get dark and eerie in the last act.
While the two women and Simpson drive the film, Bill Nighy knocks one out of the park every time he’s on screen. At first, Sheba’s husband Richard seems like the only benevolent character, but when he explodes at Barbara with a string of expletives, you know that he’s not going to take her imposing attitude lying down. Even after that, he’s one of the few characters the viewer can feel sorry for, as he delivers a powerfully emotional performance after learning the truth.
The relationship between Sheba and her 15-year-old student isn’t nearly as fathomable, since Sheba seems far too intelligent and mature to get a schoolgirl crush on a mere boy, let alone allow herself to be seduced. Then again, it’s hard to ignore the similarities between their story and that of Marie Kate LeTourneau, a real-life incident that makes us aware that something like this can happen. Despite her unwise indiscretion, one can’t help but empathize with Sheba’s feelings, which may not have been the case in the hands of a different actress. Newcomer Andrew Simpson does a fine job as her student, holding his ground against the more experienced actress in their scenes together.
It’s hard to determine what director Richard Eyre brings to the mix, because he’s handed a near-perfect script and such a solid cast that one would assume he could just put these actors into an empty room together and have something great. Really, there’s nothing visually impressive or exciting about the movie that doesn’t come from the writing or the performances, though he does keep things moving at a brisk pace.
Composer Philip Glass does a respectable job imitating Bernard Hermann with his typically gorgeous score, but it’s far too overpowering in places, creating needless melodrama that could easily have been carried by the actors. It’s a bit of a shame, since it makes the movie seem too much like simply a Hitchcock pastiche. Following so closely on the heels of Blanchett’s role in the derivative “The Good German,” it would have been nice to see “Notes” build more upon its original themes rather than what makes it like other films.
The Bottom Line:
“Notes on a Scandal” is a clever twist on the modern-day thriller with three great performances and enough dark, dry humor to keep you from being bored by its often simplistic premise about secrets and obsession.