Notes on a Scandal

Dan Goldwasser Movie Reviews

Tonight I went solo to Fox for a screening of Notes on a Scandal, starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Usually I don’t like going to movies alone, but I had to go since I will be doing an interview with composer Philip Glass, so it would be in my best interest to see the movie. Getting into the studio was a nightmare – there was a LOT of traffic. Apparently there were three screenings on the lot tonight, and most people were there to see that other Judi Dench film, so my screening was a small intimate affair with about 20 people present.

Notes on a Scandal is based on the novel by Zoe Heller, and takes place in England. Elderly schoolteacher (and old maid) Barbara (Judi Dench) writes candidly in her diary daily, and is excited when the new art teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett) arrives at the school. Barbara is drawn to Sheba’s “free spirit”, and is determined to befriend her. She writes unflattering opinionated things in her diary about Sheba’s husband Richard (Bill Nighy), her step-daughter, and her Downs Syndrome afflicted step-son Ben. Things get complicated when Barbara discovers that Sheba is carrying on an affair with a 15-year old student of hers, Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson). Determined to secure her relationship, Barbara essentially blackmails Sheba, promising not to tell anyone about the affair – which Sheba must end – in exchange for her confidence.

However, the affair doesn’t end, and soon Barbara’s questionable motives and attraction to Sheba result in a rather messy situation. In the role as the spinster, Dench is perfect, looking haggard and delivering the dialogue with malicous glee. Blanchett is alright, coasting through the role and basically falling victim to the unfortunate circumstances around her. Nighy, as her husbad, has a very subdued role, but when the inevitable confrontations come towards the end of the film, his acting chops shine. I don’t know which was creepier: seeing the 37-year old Blanchett making out with the 17-year old Simpson, or the 72-year old Dench putting the moves on Blanchett. Either way, things don’t end well!

The writing is sharp, and the direction is rather straightforward but engaging. The use of Dench’s voiceover (reading her diary entries) is well done, and provides some dark humor. The music by Philip Glass is wonderfully woven into the film’s tapestry, and while it might come across as “more of the same”, he does it so well that there’s no real way you can dismiss it offhand.

Notes on a Scandal takes a rather interesting look at the whole “teacher-seducing-student” scenario, with a few twists along the way. It might not be for everyone, but it’s a well done film.