Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
I’ve been focusing heavily on Best Actress performances for some time because switching from movies on the 1001 Movies list to Oscars left me vastly behind in that category. I’ve been catching up slowly but surely, but it’s still the category where I have the furthest to go. So, because that’s where I’m trying to catch up, my NetFlix queue is currently heavily skewed toward that award. Thus we have Notes on a Scandal, since I’m also a little behind in that decade compared with the others.
This is a film I knew nothing about other than that it starred Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, both of whom I love. It’s always fun to go into an acclaimed film with great actors and little to no background, and in this case, it was absolutely worth it. Notes on a Scandal is a movie with a simple premise and excellent execution. For something this simple, it’s surprisingly tense.
Much of the story is told through the diary of Barbara Covett (Dench) a history teacher at the British equivalent of an American public high school. She’s something of a bitter woman and has a low opinion of her students and most of the people she encounters daily. When a new art teacher named Sheba Hart (Blanchett) arrives, Covett’s initial diary entries are less than flattering. Soon, however, she becomes somewhat infatuated with the new teacher, then increasingly obsessive.
Sheba Hart has her own particular issues. She is considerably younger than her husband Richard (Bill Nighy) and has a daughter (Juno Temple) and a son with Down’s syndrome (Max Lewis), which makes her home life unusual at best. Much more seriously, shortly after coming to the school, Sheba begins an affair with Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), who is 15-years-old and one of her students. That’s a criminal offense in case you weren’t sure.
In a normal case, this would be more than enough for a plot, but with Notes on a Scandal, we’re just getting started. Barbara discovers the affair and confronts Sheba. And for the second act of the film, what dominates the film is Barbara’s emotional blackmail of Sheba. Barbara is intensely lonely and desperate for human contact and uses her knowledge of Sheba’s crime to dominate her time and gather as much of her attention as she can. Problems arise when she demands that Sheba break off the affair (to have more of her time) and Sheba doesn’t. Things come to a head when Barbara’s cat is put down on the same day as Sheba’s son’s school play and Sheba chooses her family over Barbara.
I’m not going to go into the third act, save to say that it gets extremely intense and ends in a way that in a subtle way feels straight out of a horror movie.
Notes on a Scandal works because it reveals information slowly and carefully. Our knowledge of Sheba comes quickly and shockingly, but the reveal of exactly the type of person Barbara is comes slower and is ultimately much more disturbing. As terrible and wrong as a high school teacher having an affair with a student is horrible, on some level, it can almost be understood (almost, mind you). Barbara, though, is manipulative and evil behind her placid exterior. Her journal, which we hear from throughout the film, is almost romantic in its discussion of Sheba, and contains items like press-on gold stars and strands of Sheba’s hair. It’s disturbing and creepy.
The film is simple on the surface but very dark and deep just under that surface. It’s held together by the performances of Cate Blanchett and especially Judi Dench. Dench is absolutely chilling throughout and she looks haggard and worn. There are moments that, for me, are part of the definition of a great performance. We can tell at times what is going on inside her head just from a subtle expression. Dench puts on an acting class here, and it is a beautiful thing to watch.
The other thing that works here is the story. Notes on a Scandal is petty and sordid, but it’s also human and terrible. Sheba’s story is filled with lust and shame and guilt, but Barbara’s story is one of longing and betrayal. And despite Sheba’s crimes, it is her who comes out more sympathetic in the end. It’s evidence of good writing that we end up far more troubled by a lonely old woman than a teacher who takes sexual advantage of a teen.
Notes on a Scandal is not the sort of film I would recommend to a lot of people because of the subject matter. I’d not want to watch this with one of my kids or with one of my parents. It is, however, an excellent example of a film that relies on disturbing psychology to tell its story, and placed in Judi Dench’s capable hands, it tells that story beautifully.
Why to watch Notes on a Scandal: Two great performances.
Why not to watch: It will leave you feeling unclean.