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Notes on a Scandal

D: Richard Eyre / 92m

Cast: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Philip Davis, Andrew Simpson, Michael Maloney, Juno Temple, Max Lewis, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Georgeson, Julia McKenzie

Adapted by Patrick Marber from the novel by Zoë Heller, Notes on a Scandal should be sought out for three reasons: the acting masterclasses given by Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, a superb, unsettling score by Philip Glass, and the script itself, a beautifully constructed piece that delves into some very dark corners indeed, and which still allows itself the luxury of including a mordaunt sense of humour.

The story centres around two outwardly very different teachers in a London comprehensive school, St George’s. Dench is Barbara Covett, a history teacher who is approaching retirement. She’s never married, doesn’t have a significant other, is respected but not liked by the other teachers, and adopts a disdainful air that keeps everyone at a distance. Blanchett is Sheba Hart, a much younger art teacher who lacks Barbara’s experience and thick skin. She’s married to an older man, Richard (Nighy), and has two children, Polly (Temple) and Ben (Lewis). Sheba is the kind of teacher who often finds themselves out of their depth, and it’s on one such occasion that Barbara comes to her rescue.

Grateful to her, Sheba begins a friendship with Barbara that sees the older woman visiting Sheba’s home more and more often. Sheba effectively becomes Barbara’s protegé, although there is still a wide gulf between them, stemming mostly from Barbara’s dislike of Sheba’s middle-class lifestyle. One evening, Barbara waits for Sheba to attend a school drama performance, but Sheba is late. Barbara goes in search of her, and discovers Sheba having sex with a pupil, Steven Connolly (Simpson). Shocked, and feeling betrayed, Barbara confronts Sheba. The younger woman pleads with Barbara not to tell anyone. To Sheba’s surprise, Barbara has no intention of telling anyone – because they’re friends (though Barbara does insist Sheba end the affair immediately). Barbara sees her chance to become closer to Sheba, or destroy her if Sheba doesn’t agree to spending more time with her.

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But Steven won’t be put off by Sheba’s pleas to stop the affair. He continues to see her, and Sheba allows their relationship to continue (though she keeps this a secret from Barbara). But it’s not long before Barbara discovers Sheba’s duplicity, and when she attempts to blackmail Sheba into spending time with her – to be with her at the expense of spending time with her family – Sheba has no choice but to put her family first. Angry and spiteful, Barbara seizes an opportunity presented to her by another teacher, Brian Bangs (Davis), and it’s not long before Steven’s mother is at Sheba’s house and the whole affair is revealed.

Richard leaves Sheba in order to have time to think about their relationship, and unable to face being in their home without him, asks Barbara if she can stay with her for a few days. Barbara quite naturally agrees, but a chance discovery leads to Sheba finding out the true extent of what their friendship means to Barbara, and how their relationship has been manipulated by Barbara from the beginning. With the future of her marriage looking uncertain, and facing jail because Steven is only fifteen, Sheba has no option but to confront Barbara over what the older woman has done.

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Simply put, Notes on a Scandal is gripping stuff. Patrick Marber’s script hustles and bustles with undisguised hostility towards its two central characters, revealing their darkest traits and baser instincts with a scalpel-like precision that flays their more self-serving attributes to the metaphorical bone. Both Barbara and Sheba have their secrets, and both struggle to keep them hidden, but Marber won’t allow them any such luxury. As they interact with each other, lying and obscuring the truth about themselves, Barbara and Sheba become more and more unlikeable as the movie continues. Barbara’s domineering, manipulative demeanour is barely hidden at times, but she covers it well enough to fool Sheba, whose self-centred moral nihilism means she can’t see when someone has seen through her own carefully constructed façade.

The two women become involved in a one-sided battle, one-sided because Sheba doesn’t realise that Barbara wants nothing less than complete capitulation, and on her terms alone. Sheba is to be the sacrifice to Barbara’s vanity, another in a (conceivably) long line of hand maidens to Barbara’s idea of friendship. (The viewer may deduce that Barbara is a lesbian because of her intentions toward Sheba, but Marber’s script is too clever for that; instead, Barbara is more asexual than sexual, and is horrified at the suggestion – made by Sheba late on in the movie – that her motives lie in that direction.) Sheba, however, is very definitely a sexual creature, one who defines herself and her existence by the way in which she is found attractive and desired (once, after they’ve had sex, Steven tells Sheba she is “fit”, and Sheba positively glows under the praise). Both women are confused about love, Barbara seeing it as a kind of managed companionship, and Sheba as a validation of her sexual appeal. These confusions amount to huge fault lines in both their personalities, and when they eventually clash, the end result is force majeure.

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As noted above, this is a movie that features two very impressive performances, and there’s not even a hair’s breadth between them in terms of how good they are. Dench is icy and abrupt as Barbara, calculating and insidious, a woman used to being respected (and feared even) and getting her own way. Dench doesn’t shy away from examining Barbara’s less savoury characteristics, using Marber’s script to highlight the way in which she expects everyone around her to fit in with her ideas and prejudices. Dench is also good at portraying Barbara’s emotional sterility through a succession of expertly judged expressions, all testifying to the void in both her heart and her feelings.

Blanchett has what feels like the more compelling, emotionally wrought role, but Sheba is a pleasure seeker, and can only justify her actions in ways that are meant to elicit sympathy for what she sees as her unexciting lifestyle. It’s interesting that she was one of Richard’s students when they first met (though she was twenty and not fifteen when he seduced her – or she seduced him; which it is we’re not told), and she does use this as an attempt to excuse her behaviour and the affair, but Richard quite rightly decries this, leaving Sheba unable to gain any sympathy or acceptance for what she’s done. Blanchett embraces the complex neediness that infuses Sheba’s personality and doesn’t shy away from portraying the character’s selfish obsessions and somewhat childish naïvete. Like Barbara, Sheba is used to getting what she wants; the only real difference between them is that Barbara has grown used to being on her own, whereas it’s a situation that scares Sheba unreasonably.

Acting as an extra layer of emotional intensity, Philip Glass’s insistent, urgent score ramps up the tension as the story unfolds. It acts as an unseen musical narrator, underscoring (if that’s an appropriate analogy) the drama as it heads towards a necessarily downbeat ending. Coordinating this and the performances of Dench and Blanchett, director Richard Eyre, along with DoP Chris Menges, uses his theatrical flair to keep the movie both visually and dramatically exciting, and he teases every nuance and vicious piece of brinkmanship out of Marber’s acerbic screenplay. With great supporting turns from Nighy, Davis and Simpson, as well as some equally adept editing by John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelen, this is an exceptionally well crafted movie that still stands out ten years after it was released.

Rating: 9/10 – with human frailty and arrogance brought to uncomfortable life by two of today’s finest actresses, Notes on a Scandal has enough positive attributes for two movies; richly detailed and endlessly fascinating, it’s a movie whose value is unlikely to deteriorate or become degraded by repeat viewings, and which remains a remarkable convergence of talent.