Notes on a Scandal (2006) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language and some aberrant sexual content
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Polly Hart
Director: Richard Eyre
Screenplay: Patrick Marber (based on the novel by Zoe Heller)
Based on the 2003 novel by Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal tells the tale of a married London schoolteacher named Sheba Hart (Blanchett, Babel), who enters into an illicit affair with a 15-year-old student at her school, Steven Connolly (Simpson). The affair is discovered by a fellow schoolteacher, a spinster named Barbara Covett (Dench, Casino Royale), who agrees to protect the secret in an unspoken exchange for a close friendship. The relationship is sometimes tense, but Sheba does value being able to confide in Barbara, while Barbara yearns to grow even closer to her much younger companion, savoring every moment they share. Eventually, Barbara wants more out of the relationship that Sheba is willing to give, and questions about loyalty and betrayal threaten to unravel their tenuous friendship into something more sinister than either of the participants is ready to handle.
When you have Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett as the lead actresses, it's more than reasonable to expect that the film will be bolstered by powerhouse performances, and that's exactly what you'll get here. Actually, of the two actresses, it's Dench that steals the show, fully imbuing her character with a mixture of sympathy and creepiness, as her passions and loneliness drive her to obsession over things she wishes to possess, but will probably never have. The film is framed by voiceovers, mainly in the form of entries in the very private journal of Barbara, which she writes in copiously, detailing all of her latest schemes and conquests. Dench consummately portrays the dried-up and bitter old maven, externally frail and meek, but inside, she is as wily and morally decrepit as you'd ever want to meet.
Patrick Marber, who is no stranger to controversial material, having adapted his play into film script with Closer, makes some alterations to the more subtle tone in Heller's book, but does make it more compelling for the purpose of a feature film experience. The storyline is somewhat reminiscent of the classic Hollywood thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s, and in particular, it is akin to the thin relationship that developed between Guy and Bruno in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, with the weaker of the two having seemingly no way out of the stronger "friend"'s well-meaning but deadly manipulative grip.
The story itself isn't much different than similar stories you may have read in recent years about female teachers who have affairs with their teenage male students, but Notes on a Scandal really isn't about the inappropriateness of the affair so much as the nature of lust, trust, and the bedfellows that are brought together through the sharing of a secret that can shatter a life completely should it ever be revealed. Notes is a very adult film, and quite contemporary, so viewers expecting a Dench/Blanchett film to play things for more conservative audiences should take note of its subject matter before attempting. You'll detest Barbara's motives but oddly admire her resolve, and this conflict in our feelings toward her makes for a truly fascinating character study of the nature of loneliness and what some people will do to gain the companionship, and perhaps the ownership, of another person of merit.
Richard Eyre's (Stage Beauty, Iris) direction is tight and virtually lag-free, treading the line between drama, thriller, and black comedy in a very adept fashion. Philip Glass (The Illusionist, Undertow) coats the film with his usual whimsical style, and though the film might be deemed as too slight in its subject matter to merit such heavy-handed compositions, the music is actually completely in keeping with the tragic allusions underneath, with motifs based on magic (wizard hats, old cats, strands of hair, and gold stars tie in to the coven-like relationship of the women) as well as Biblical references (Sheba is short for Bathsheba, the Old Testament woman seduced; Barbara's last name is Covett, and covet she most certainly does).
While the film will no doubt garner accolades for the performances of the two leads, ithey aren't wasted in this top-drawer chilling drama, which is firmly one of the better films of 2006. With sharp characterizations, nasty turns of events, and fine-tuned undercurrents that shed light the twisted nature of relationships, particularly between those of unequal age and station, it shows that some friendships are born more out of neediness and power than out of fondness and familiarity. The lesson learned is simple, but profound: It's human nature to want what you shouldn't have, but when you finally in a position to possess it, you may find yourself the one possessed if you are not being able to let it go.
©2007 Vince Leo