Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Drizzled with Oscar nominations (for Best Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Score) Notes on a Scandal is nonetheless an art-house picture that will slip from the big screen to rental markets with hardly a murmur. It’s a shame, for at the film’s core lies one of the year’s most beguiling performances.

Dame Judi Dench plays Barbara, a fiercely bright, emotionally washed-out schoolteacher, teetering on the precipice of retirement. Alone, and disappointed by the world (her advice on handling children is to “cattle prod and pray”), she’s the bitter, dried center of a woman, doling out acerbic stares until the moment she meets the school’s new art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett). Pale and effervescent, Sheba brightens Barbara’s life like “a merry flag on the arctic landscape of my calendar”, bringing new hope to a flower long wilted.

What begins as friendship turns into infatuation, and soon Barbara is writing obsessively in her journal; fawning over Sheba’s flighty perfection, and imagining the two as more than just colleagues. In one hair-raising scene, Barbara quietly steals a single golden strand that has fallen to her lap from Sheba’s head. Her theft (set against a score of stark strings, courtesy of the unimpeachable Philip Glass), is at first playful and seductive, but hints at the creepiness to come.

Based on a novel by Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal betrays early its passion for wordplay. Spoken aloud, Barbara’s notes are intoxicating, the kind of writing one might expect to find in Tom Stoppard’s diary; breathtaking arrangements, poetic and scathingly honest… better, in fact, than the movie itself. The story never rises above its literate antagonist, or her narration. Director Richard Eyre focuses so tightly on Barbara’s obsession that he fails to cultivate the film’s central scandal. Absent any escalating sexual tension, what happens next feels strangely dissatisfying.

When Barbara stumbles upon Sheba giving one of her students (Steven, played by Andrew Simpson) more than a little extra help after class, the levee breaks. She boldly confronts Sheba, concealing her jealousy as professional concern. But rather than expose the terrified woman, Barbara does not report her, but culls from Sheba candid confessions of the affair. The predatory spinster thrives on these admissions, each whisper serving to further degrade Sheba, bringing her closer to what Barbara perceives is the inevitability of their embrace. All the while, Eyre (who directed Dame Judi in Iris) frames close-ups of Dench’s eyes, those sprightly jewels, at once twinkling and seditious. It is impossible not to watch, mesmerized, as Barbara delights in Sheba’s misery, even as she loves the young woman, undeniably.

Was it Steven’s vulnerability that bewitched Sheba, or the flattery of his pursuit? Had the dutiful mum regressed to her own youthful days, in a moment of wanton desire? The film never tells. Though even Sheba’s mother quietly admits of her daughter “She is beautiful, but without substance”. Bonus features on the DVD include interviews with novelist Zoe Heller, during which she claims it was never her intention to answer the question “Why?” That might work with more satisfying escapes like Unfaithful, or The Door in the Floor (superior tales of seduction and consequence), but Notes on a Scandal, true to its English roots, skimps on the guilty pleasure of allowing us such indulgence.

While Blanchett smolders convincingly, 15-year-old Simpson (who looks like he fell off the train to Hogwart’s) is hardly Lolita, and we’re left wondering if any of this was really worth the trouble. Indeed, the subtitle of Heller’s original work is What Was She Thinking? Their affair is neither pulpy enough to titillate (zero nudity, rife with awkward moments), nor soulful enough to defend. Even the strikingly feline Blanchett (all pursed lips and high cheekbones) looks unbecoming pressed against a freckled pubescent; and the kid really doesn’t exude the kind of charm or sexuality that might win such A-list attention. The tale would be wholly unbelievable were it not for a spate of student-teacher affairs splashed across tabloids in recent years.

Equally puzzling is Sheba’s attachment to Richard (Bill Nighy), the cheeky, fair-haired professor who’s nearly 60 – much older than her. Barbara’s narrative exposes their bourgeois-bohemian marriage as mirage, but audiences will spot the illusion just as fast. The distance between Sheba and Richard is unavoidably contrived (a theme throughout the film: every love interest is a generation too far removed). A staple of cinema since his star turn in 2003’s Love Actually, Nighy plays caricatures better than real humans. Much as I admire his work, Notes on a Scandal finds his talents miscast and wasted. All told, the story might have been better served with less incongruous couples.

Confident that the deck is stacked, Barbara takes some of the heat off of Sheba, but her acquiescence only encourages the art teacher, whose furtive indulgence grows into a spiraling recklessness. Lost in the whirl of her crush, Sheba ignores the rising catastrophe, until it blindsides her. When young Steven surprises her during a Christmas gathering, nearly exposing their tryst in front of her family, Sheba collapses inconsolably in the kitchen. It’s a profound moment, and Blanchett is at her very best, with a raw virtuosity that stuns. At times, the divas threaten to overwhelm an otherwise unknown group of actors (the melodramatic Nighy notwithstanding), but audiences should soak in the chance to watch them outside an ensemble.

Unfortunately, Notes on a Scandal falls in a somewhat predictable arc once the affair heats to a melting point, and the film’s latter third never regains its punch. When Barbara’s façade finally crumbles, Eyre undoes what might otherwise have been the film’s emotional apex by throwing gasoline onto the fire. Again, the director has revealed too little for us to feel Richard’s sudden mistrust of Barbara, resulting in a standoff that seems chaotic rather than revelatory.

Still, we’ve got Dench to entertain us. At 73, the silver-haired sphinx may just now be peaking – and unlike her contemporaries, she’s got plenty left in the tank. Dame Judi gives an absolutely pulverizing performance, at last warranting the ubiquitous Oscar nod she seems to earn perennially, just for showing up. The scorned spinster at last bares her teeth, and exacts a slumbering revenge. Watching Barbara relish the opera of Sheba’s life exploding is a thrill – the guilty pleasure denied us for most of the film.

The disc’s special features are ample, if one-dimensional, with twin featurettes and cast interviews that feel redundant (though Dench’s girlish charm never tires). Highlights include an extemporaneous junket between Blanchett and Nighy, followed by screenwriter Patrick Marber’s admission that adapting Heller’s novel gave him license “To explore women in an unsentimental way.” It’s all rather scandalous.

Notes on a Scandal’s somber message means to warn us of “The distance between life as you dream it, and life as it is.” Indeed, there is little fantasy in this film that lingers for long. Affairs are broken, relationships shattered, and love betrayed. With each obsession comes inexorable tragedy. And while the sum of its parts may fall shy of perfection, Notes on a Scandal’s four nominations are not without merit. Oscars – like secrets – can be seductive, and this little film means to tempt us. You won’t find a better performance this year.

RATING 8 / 10