Notes on a Scandal, is a story within a story. A female teacher’s affair with a fifteen year old student, and the consequences of this, is merely a backdrop for the real tale of one woman’s agonising loneliness. Barbara is a stern and well respected teacher, nearing retirement. Her bitterly cold approach to teaching is a reflection of her personal isolation in all other areas of her life. When the new art teacher, Sheba, invites Barbara to a family meal she not only invites Barbara into her personal life but opens a door to her privacy that Barbara will steadily sneak through. A mix of foolish errors and coincidences lead Barbara to discover Sheba venturing into a relationship with an under-age student; a discovery that Barbara will take full advantage of in order to cement and protect her blossoming friendship with Sheba. Barbara is a confused and naive individual who wants more than just a platonic friendship with Sheba but is unable to view Sheba’s position, rationally. When Sheba begins to reject her intentions and tries to distance herself from Barbara, she turns Barbara into as much of a threat as her already secretive and unstable position. It is Barbara’s manipulation of Sheba and her unpredictable mood swings that make Notes on a Scandal such a creepy and terrifying tale.
Judi Dench has never been better. She brings a monster to the screen that is menacing as well as misunderstood. She is an entirely self motivated and self involved character which keeps her completely separated from the other characters, particularly Sheba. You feel sorry for her whilst constantly fearing her and her capabilities. Dench portrays two very different sides to Barbara; the side that performs and adapts to her surroundings and the side that is twisted, manipulative and threatening. Dench sways elegantly between the two for the majority of the film and reaches the extremes of both at several, separate, poignant moments in the narrative. Cate Blanchett gives a performance that rivals Judi Dench’s. Blanchett seems rawer and braver in the role of Sheba than she usually is on screen. Her character, unlike Barbara, is an open book; vulnerable, naive and spontaneous. Together, both actresses create an uncomfortable atmosphere that refuses to lift during the entire hour and a half running time. Their relationship begins to blossom before being suddenly poisoned by Sheba’s actions and Barbara’s manipulation. Both are femme fatales in their own right, encapsulating typical film noir characters that damage themselves as much as others. Sheba’s childish and unprofessional mistakes make her an enemy to herself whilst Barbara also punishes herself by giving in to her personally romanticised and repetitive infatuations.
What is perhaps the most admirable aspect of Notes on a Scandal is how controversial and debatable the characters, and their actions, are. Whilst Sheba’s affair is unforgivable and foolish, her reasons for embarking upon it are highlighted and fully explained. Sheba is as disputable as her behaviour. It is easy to pity Barbara but her devious scheming is not justified by her painful solitude. The tension continues to build from the opening minutes of the film right up until the final dark conclusion of the story. It is never fully released, despite realisations and confrontations. The pace of the film gradually increases, making the audience feel as though they are running and attempting to escape, along with the characters. As the pace increases, the walls close in around both females and there is a sense that time is running out for both of them. Director Richard Eyre knows how to conduct a story and govern his audience. As his characters deepen, the plot deliciously thickens. A strong supporting cast, consisting of the likes of Bill Nighy and Philip Davis, can not be overlooked when complimenting the substance and mood of this film. Nighy and Davis are both there as comfort and support to our two lead female characters and weave themselves perfectly into the thick tapestry of this admirable story. A dark film noir, Notes on a Scandal presents some of British cinema’s most selfish and nasty individuals that will continue to cling to you once the credits have finished rolling. Notes on a Scandal – a story that draws attention to the darkest areas of the human conscience – is ultimately about the damaging effects that secrecy, selfishness and solitude can have upon the human condition.
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