Plot: A veteran high school teacher befriends a younger art teacher, who is having an affair with one of her 15-year-old students. However, her intentions with this new "friend" also go well beyond platonic friendship.
Director: Richard Eyre
Writers: Patrick Marber (screenplay), Zoe Heller (novel)
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and Andrew Simpson
Secrets can be seductive
Notes on a Scandal is a remarkable movie - it's not because of particularly strong script or original story. It's not even because of great work from Cate Blanchett. It is a movie that is worth watching over and over again for Judy Dench's incredible and unforgettable work as Barbara, older teacher who desperately looks for a friend. And when I say desperately you have no idea how deep that desperation goes.
Barbara is a teacher in a school filled with students from poor environment, who will mostly grow up without probably achieving anything. Fights, swearing, disgusting writings on the bathroom walls - that is the kind of school Barbara works in. She is strict, well organized, sullen. One day a new teacher - very naive and innocent Sheba - comes to work in the school and from that moment forward everything changes.
The story seemingly revolves around two women as we hear Barbara' thoughts about Sheba and the world around them and as we watch Sheba succumbing to the flirting with 15-year old student and entering a passionate love affair with him. But scene by scene it is Barbara who captivates our attention as we are starting to see that her efforts at making a friend are deeply sinister, selfish and unhealthy. When Barbara finds out about Sheba's affair with a student she doesn't tell anyone about it - not to protect Sheba, but to create an emotional debt Sheba will have to pay for the rest of her life.
We don't know whether Barbara is just lonely or mentally insane. We see her solitude, which she only shares with her cat - those scenes show that Barbara is definitely not a psychopath as she cares for her cat dearly, being worried sick as she is ill and crying as if it was her own child. It is after all, the only living creature that every shared Barbara's life with her, fully and lovingly. Barbara doesn't have family or friends and that's why she is so overjoyed when Sheba appears and opportunity arises to be close to her. It is clear from the very first moments that Barbara has found her target and she won't back down until she gets what she wants - a faithful companion.
Judi Dench's layered performance aided by beautiful written monologues we hear her tell us in narrative is fantastic. It is chilling, complex and horrifying - as we get to see layer by layer how much damage loneliness and desperation did to Barbara, her perception of things, her utter lack of understanding for another people's desires and her ability to use her intelligence to her own gain at the expense of others. Her loneliness is like a poison that she is compelled to pass on the others, foolish or naive enough to appear and stay in her life.
The film plays a little with the idea of Barbara being sexually attracted to Sheba, which only adds more tragedy to her character. Her and Sheba make for an odd duo, even as friends. Deep down Barbara must realize that as lovers they would make even less sense. Those underlying realization of the fact that what she is doing is odd and wrong only cripples her more, although she is fighting it every minute of every day, never allowing herself to realize just how disturbed she is.
Notes on a Scandal has great acting and very interesting and thrilling script, although it is far from being perfect - especially the characters of the youngest actors in the movie aren't developed well, especially Sheba's lover who is so uninteresting and silly one can only wonder why would she jeopardize everything to be with him. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth seeing and the acting chemistry between Dench and Blanchett is certainly something to marvel at.