NOTES ON A SCANDAL
When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) arrives as the new art teacher at a London school, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) takes an interest in her, believing she would make an ideal friend and confidante in the lonely tail end of her life - shared only by her cat, Portia. Her assessment of Sheba is shaken when she discovers a surprising indiscretion involving a 15 year old pupil (Andrew Simpson), but as Barbara writes in her diary, this secret could help bind Sheba to her, and perhaps lessen Sheba's dependence on her husband, an older man (Bill Nighy) and two early teenage children. However, Sheba doesn't seem to reciprocate the intensity of Barbara's feelings, and continues her ill-fated dalliance with the pupil, leading to a destructive fallout for all concerned.
Review by Louise Keller:
Secrets are seductive, confides Cate Blanchett's bohemian art teacher to Judi Dench's spinster schoolmarm. 'People have always trusted me with their secrets,' the older woman tells her only confidante - her diary. 'But who do I trust? Only you,' she writes. A mesmerising story about obsession and loneliness, Notes on a Scandal boasts two outstanding performances from women who have no fear of exposing their every emotion. Theatre director Richard Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber (Closer) collaborate to deliver a dazzling adaptation of Zoe Heller's scorching novel that chisels away the superfluous and hones in on complex emotional truths.
When Blanchett's exotically named Sheba Hart arrives at the tough secondary school, Dench's self-described 'battleaxe' Barbara Covett watches her with scornful disdain. But the reason is not what we initially think. She is not disapproving or judgmental. She is jealous of the attention her colleagues and students are receiving from the porcelain-skinned beauty, whose friendship she (like her name suggests), covets for herself. Sheba becomes Barbara's prey, and is not until Barbara finds a sure-fire way to ensure Sheba is in her debt, that she at last feels secure about their relationship.
'You've done my brain in,' Sheba sighs, when making love for the first time to her young student Steven (Andrew Simpson, convincing) in the grass by the railway track. The forbidden relationship becomes an obsession for Sheba, who aches to escape from her chaotic home life with a craggy older husband Richard (Billy Nigh, powerful), rebel teenage daughter (Juno Temple) and Down syndrome son (Max Lewis).
Dench's narration as she reads snippets of her caustically written diary ('she is the one I have waited for') becomes increasingly telling, as we recognise the hysterical nature of her obsession. Manipulation and emotional blackmail are the tools, as this tense and emotionally dense plot plays out in brilliant style. Dench is sublime as a woman who revels in others' discomfort, while Blanchett opens up emotionally like a flower whose petals are drawn to the light. There were shivers up my spine as the film's crescendo explodes into a shocking climax, and all the while, Philip Glass' claustrophobic score hovers provocatively. Engrossing, bewildering, searing and shattering, this is a film that reverberates on every level.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
If you can't make a character drama work with two of the world's greatest actresses - at different ends of the age spectrum - you would have to give up, wouldn't you. Happily, director Richard Eyre doesn't have to give up and Patrick Marber's writing will no doubt be just as well acclaimed for this beautifully realised film. It's everything a grown up film lover could want in terms of character, story a subtle yet riveting, powerful drama.
Judi Dench gives a concentrated performance glinting with steel, immersed in restrained feelings and balanced with wisdom and authority gained through age. Her Barbara is loveable and frightening all at once, her vulnerability both sad and pathetic. Cate Blanchett matches her with an unpredictable character whose weaknesses cause us much grief and whose emotional journey is like a game of snakes and ladders.
Bill Nighy and Andrew Simpson - also at opposite ends of the age range - surrender themselves to their characters in agonising detail as the older husband and younger sex object respectively. Of course Barbara and Sheba are also unmatched in age, and the film lets the audience work through these issues in a feast of moving scenes that juggle our feelings like an accomplished circus act. There are chuckles aplenty in the first half of the film, drawn from a well observed script, and when the chuckles dry up, the pathos of the story blossoms like a black orchid. Wonderful work from all, deserving of a place in the hall of fame for 2007.
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NOTES ON A SCANDAL (MA)
CAST: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Phil Davis, Michael Maloney, Juno Temple, Max Lewis, Joanna Scanlan, Julia McKenzie, Shaun Parkes
PRODUCER: Scott Rudin, Robert Fox
DIRECTOR: Richard Eyre
SCRIPT: Patrick Marber (book by Zoe Heller)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Chris Menges
EDITOR: John Bloom, Antonia van Drimmelen
MUSIC: Philip Glass
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tim Hatley
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Searchlight
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 15, 2006