Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Jarrett Berman

Oscars – like secrets – can be seductive, and this little film means to tempt us. Dame Judi gives an absolutely pulverizing performance.

Notes on a Scandal

Director: Richard Eyre
Cast: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy
Distributor: Fox
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-17

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.







Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.