Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Directed by Richard Eyre

While the movie itself is a good, if middling, kind of potboiler, Notes on a Scandal becomes much more fascinating with its two key performances, that of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.

Between the two of them they turn a film about a sex scandal into a compelling study of isolation and loneliness. In fact, the sex aspect of the movie, which in other hands might have been the focus of the movie, is really little more than a plot point here. Based on the novel by Zoe Heller, screenwriter Patrick Marber and director Richard Eyre find a much more compelling focus in the isolation of two quite different women and what happens when their lives intersect.

They come together at a school in Britain, a very drab and hopeless world, where both are coming to terms, or have already, with what Blanchett’s character refers to as, “…the distance between life as you dream it and life as it is.”

Both are teachers at the school: Dench has been there for years, Blanchett has just started. The two women become friends.

However, Dench’s Barbara is a bit like a stalker. She becomes obsessed with Blanchett’s Sheba, who comes across as sensual yet with no awareness of it. Barbara discovers Sheba has been having an affair with a 15 year old student.

Initially, she is jealous and furious but then she understands she will have control over Sheba if she keeps the secret and uses it as blackmail.

What unfolds on screen is, in one sense, the back and forth of a suspenseful potboiler. But the real film is in the back and forth between Dench and Blanchett, augmented by a nicely articulated performance by Bill Nighy as Sheba’s older husband. The upperhand switches from one to the other.

It’s not so much that Sheba’s character is aware of what is going on, so much as it is her struggling with the secret she is terrified will come out. In Dench’s case, it is in the strength and focus of Barbara which can suddenly vanish and be replaced by terror when she suspects she might lose Sheba and be alone.

Notes on a Scandal is an odd film in that it is an average thriller. On the level, there have been much better thrillers but also much worse ones. However, with the performances we get here from Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett the movie elevates itself.

It is definitely worth seeing for the performances of two of the best actors working today.

3 stars out of 4.

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