Remarkable chemistry in Scandal
by Jim Hoffman
Notes on a Scandal (2006, 92 minutes, 13+)
Notes on a Scandal, a surprise contender from last year’s awards season, is out on DVD. The film is primarily a character study. While it has a couple of solidly fascinating, nuanced women at its centre, the story of loneliness and vengeance that surrounds them ends in a rickety manner.
Barbara Covet (Judi Dench) and Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) are two women who couldn ’t seem more different. Barbara is the stereotypical spinster, right down to her aging cat. She spends her free time writing in her journal, making imperious observations about the students and staff of the inner-city high school she teaches at.
When Sheba joins the staff, attractive and seemingly guileless, she quickly becomes the sole focus of Barbara ’s caustic observations. She embarks upon what can only be described as a plot, targeting the younger teacher for intimacy.
What forms the crux of the drama is Barbara’s shocking discovery of Sheba’s affair with a young student, and, more shocking, Barbara’s decision to use this secret knowledge as a means to ensure obedience from her new friend.
The real draw is the performance of the two actors. It’s exciting watching them work together; they have a remarkable chemistry. They each earned an Oscar nomination for this film and they share the curious distinction of having both been previously nominated for playing the same role (Elizabeth I) in separate movies in the same year. (Blanchett was nominated for Elizabeth, while Dench won for Shakespeare in Love). Blanchett is a master of minute details, making Sheba a fresh discovery throughout the film, while Dench, in a gleefully commanding performance, relishes the opportunity to walk a tightrope between genuine pathos and near total malevolence. Sparks do fly.
Director Richard Eyre’s nearly breathless pacing and the hypnotically rhythmic score by Philip Glass are assets. The script, by Closer’s Patrick Marber (based on a novel by Zoë Heller) with its pinpoint attention to detail, is knowing about its characters.
Two unfortunate contrivances in the third act, designed to lead to a denouement-like confrontation, don ’t offer new information about the characters. It’s a late attempt to bring the story to an operatic pitch and make good on the psychological menace that had been so carefully brewed – but it diminishes the resonance of an otherwise keenly made film.
All quibbles about a satisfying ending aside, there’s more than enough sharp drama in Notes on a Scandal to put it ahead of most Saturday evening rentals.