Instead of becoming the tawdry, salacious affair it could've easily been, two masterful and textured performances from two of our greatest actresses catapult "Notes on a Scandal" to the echelon of art-house entertainment. In one corner, we have Dame Judi Dench as the lonely schoolmarm and mentor. In the other corner, we have Cate Blanchett as the flighty but endearing new art teacher just begging for someone to take her under their wing. The film starts innocuously enough, with the two women becoming fast friends, with Blanchett inviting Dench into her home and family, and Dench all too eager to find a new best friend. Deliciously seasoned with spicy subtexts involving the bourgeois sense of entitlement, the bitterness of the lower middle class, the candidness of those with everything who never seem to be satisfied, the resentment of those sucked into this confidence, and of course, the psycho-sexual entrapments of all relationships, "Notes on a Scandal" is rife with everyday tragedy. The convoluted subtexts often take precedence over what is being seen on screen, until Dench's voice-over entrances us and sucks us in.
In the early scenes where Dench is describing her burgeoning fascination with Blanchett, the audience shares in the allure as Dench paints beautifully the appeal of Blanchett's talents as an actress. Soon, though, the fantasy makes way for reality, and Blanchett as raw and vulnerable as she has ever been falls under the spell of a troubled 15 year-old boy with whom she begins an illicit affair. Blanchett's folly is mirrored in Dench's obsession with becoming her sole confidant.
Director Richard Eyre (who previously directed Dench in the superb "Iris") structures the film in a crisp clip. As the plot quickly goes through the motions, secrets are revealed, true natures are uncovered, and the lives of both women become tragically entangled as they unravel.
Enough can't be said about Dench's mastering of the thespian art form. She could've easily dived head first into this role and delivered something akin to Kathy Bates turn as the mad spinster in "Misery." Instead, she adds subtlety, humor, and melancholy in her perfectly balanced performance that allows you to sympathize with her character for the loneliness she feels while at the same time hating her for her opportunism and bitterness.
Likewise, Blanchett, manages to play to our sympathies, and it's easy to see why Dench, the boy in question, and Blanchett's husband (a shockingly good Bill Nighy), are completely smitten with her despite her impetuousness.
With betrayal leading to hatred and a complete breakdown of all things sacred in human connections, the climactic showdown between The Dame and The Cate is the type of goose-bump inducing acting tour de force moviegoers dream about. There's also a sense of a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation of great actresses to the next. Far from being just the highbrow version of "Single White Female," "Notes on a Scandal" entertains and provokes those willing to enjoy the psychologically complex roller coaster.
The bitter, cynical and lonely Barbara Covett is a tough and conservative teacher, near to retirement, who is loathed by her colleagues and students. In the loneliness of her apartment, she spends her spare time writing her journal, taking care of her old cat Portia and missing her special friend Jennifer Dodd. When Sheba Hart joins the high-school as the new art teacher, Barbara dedicates her attention to the newcomer, writing sharp and unpleasant comments about her behavior and clothes. When Barbara helps Sheba in a difficult situation with two students, the grateful Sheba invites her to have lunch with her family. Sheba introduces her husband and former professor Richard Hart, who is about twenty years older than she; her rebellious teenager daughter Polly; and her son Ben that has Down's Syndrome. Barbara becomes close to Sheba, but when she accidentally discovers that Sheba is having an affair with the fifteen year-old student Steven Connolly, Barbara sees the chance to manipulate and get closer to Sheba, hiding the secret from the school headmaster. When Portia dies and Sheba does not stay with Barbara in the veterinary office to see Ben in a theater play, Barbara plots a Machiavellian revenge against Sheba, creating a scandal and consequent turmoil in their lives.
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