Notes on a Scandal is a fascinating look into obsession, and is anchored by two great performances by two great actresses, both of whom have been appropriately awarded with Oscar nominations. The scandal the title refers to may seem common enough in the midst of common tabloid exploitation that even the so-called “real news” has become more often than not these days, but the movie doesn’t play it for the salacious factor. It’s a story about loneliness and obsession but without the exaggerated theatrics of boiled cats.
Dame Judi Dench plays Barbara Covett, an old-fashioned spinster school teacher with little patience for the rude behaviour of the students or the drudgery of staff meetings. She keeps herself company by penning in her diary and releasing all her worldly frustrations on the page while stroking her elderly cat. Into Barbara’s life comes the new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), and although there’s an instantaneous kind of dislike for this “bourgeois bohemian type”, Sheba strikes up a friendship with Barbara and thus brings a sunny new ray of light into Barbara’s life. Going beyond just deeply held friendship, Barbara becomes literally smitten with Sheba and exhibits bouts of jealousy in the presence of other women, and longing during the Christmas break. All’s well until Barbara stumbles onto the fact that Sheba’s carrying on an affair with a student, and then the friendship becomes about possession; Barbara owns Sheba as the secret keeper of the affair.
This is the Dame Judi show as the normally regal actress revels in being mean and nasty, only to lighten up in the presence of Blanchett’s Sheba, even while plotting to do bad things to her “for her own good”. Dench gets the best lines and the movie pretty much unfolds according to her perspective, but this isn’t necessarily what endears us to Barbara. The genius in the way Dench plays her is that we all have had a Barbara Covett teach us at some point, and like it or not it’s the Barbara Covetts that have the lasting impact on us, impact and admiration even. This factors into how the relationship between Barbara and Sheba begins, as Barbara takes two unruly boys to task after Sheba loses control of the situation.
As for the plot, the movie doesn’t dwell on Sheba’s indiscretions, but it doesn’t hide from them either. Blanchett makes Sheba relatable in a way that you don’t regard her as a pariah, but not in a way that makes you want to excuse her behaviour. Blanchett plays Sheba in a way where even she is caught off guard by her own audacity when she’s confronted by Barbara about the affair, which was the right way to play it I think. Too often in film when a teacher/student relationship is shown, it’s done with a kind of self-knowing wink that is probably never really the case in reality. Everyone else in the cast sort of orbits around Dench and Blanchett, taking their cues appropriately.
As far as movies go, Notes on a Scandal is a performance piece where a couple of really good actors get to stand out and shine in two really well written roles.