Narrated through the acidic yet poetic diary scratchings of Judi Dench’s character Barbara, Notes On A Scandal is a morbidly fascinating psychological thriller from a unique perspective. Barbara meets, writes about, and eventually obsesses over Sheba (Cate Blanchett) a new teacher at her school. Sheba has problems of her own, thought they were probably manageable to a degree before Barbara wormed her way into her life. While all the description and plot ostensibly centers around the titular scandal, the guts of the movie are concerned with the true nature of Barbara and the workings of her mind with regards to Sheba.
Both characters are blind to their own narcissim and their selfish forms of neediness – both characters are willfully blind to their counterpart’s true nature. Barbara is a fearsome frump, intense like Dench but simultaneously vulnerable like Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake. The fire inside Barbara flames hot and suddenly, without warning or rational rein. Sheba is a child princess, taken care of and a caretaker and weary of responsibility. She is finding her own feet and pulling away from her older husband (Bill Nighy). She is knocked from her pedestal by Steven (Andrew Simpson), a freckly, blank-eyed buck who reeks of danger and life.
Bill Nighy supports Sheba as her older husband, supporting her bohemian ways and their Down’s syndrome son and active teen daughter. He is a man who knows well the destructive allure of a younger lover, but has aged into a nobler bastion of fatherhood. Their family seems well-adjusted and comfortable, but somehow the confluence of Steven and Barbara in Sheba’s life collides in just the wrong way and at just the wrong moment. Seeing how completely ruled Sheba is by Steven is painful but truthful.
Barbara diaries constantly, pouring out everyone’s secrets and whitewashing her own. She reinvents the past even as she documents it. It is upsetting to think that people have the capacity to turn away from their own true natures and the near sociopathic way Barbara misinterprets any simple situation is enthralling and terrible. The
slow revelation of her mind as exposed through her writing is mesmerizing on its own, but Dench knocks it out of the park with her virtuoso face. I can only assume that Zoe Heller’s book from which Patrick Marber adapted this elegant script captures the same poetic poison.
Dench and Blanchett are wonders to behold, wielding their respective powers over each other and drawing near and far, sparking flames between themselves. It’s a buffet of acting you have to see to believe. Notes on a Scandal explores attraction, intimacy, obsession, and dark levels of interpersonal dynamics in a very vibrant and immediate way. It’s a powerhouse bit of acting and an intense but rewarding drama.
MPAA Rating R-language and some aberrant sexual content.
Release date 112/27/06
Time in minutes unknown
Director Richard Eyre
Studio Fox Searchlight Pictures