Saturday 20 July 2019

Movie Review: Notes On A Scandal (2006)

A drama about loneliness and lust, Notes On A Scandal is a compact and explosive examination of two women suffering through different forms of desperation.

In London, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is nearing retirement as a history teacher at a tough school. Lonely and never married, she confines her deepest thoughts to her diary. At the start of the school year Barbara spots new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) struggling to deal with raucous student behaviour, and befriends her. Sheba is married to the much older Richard (Bill Nighy) and returning to work after taking 10 years off to care for her son Ben, who has Down's Syndrome.

Just as their friendship is solidifying, Barbara discovers Sheba having an affair with 15 year old student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Sheba admits all the details of the passionate affair to Barbara and pleads with her to delay telling the administration until after Christmas. But Barbara has other plans, and assures Sheba her secret is safe as long as Sheba breaks off the relationship with Steven.

The serious issue of loneliness among the elderly is rarely tackled on film, and Notes On A Scandal rectifies the omission with relish. Barbara is a fascinating character to place at the middle of any story, and Judi Dench brilliantly captures the complexity of a lonely but proud woman drowning in dwindling expectations, her mind justifying the creeping dark shadow of manipulative and stalking behavior.

Zoƫ Heller's book is adapted into an efficient 91 minute screenplay by Patrick Marber, and director Richard Eyre makes potent use of every scene. Driven by Philip Glass' soundtrack and without any dawdling the film breathes deeply from a school environment beset by a teachers' mood of prevalent resignation and hormonally-driven students who would rather be anywhere else. Any hint of an optimistic narrative about an inspirational teacher helping even one student rise above is stomped into the grey concrete, and Notes On A Scandal sets off to uncover the thriving weeds of selfish immorality growing between the cracks.

If Barbara is the silent hunter hiding behind the proper stiff mannerisms of an unloved but respected veteran, Sheba is the wispy newcomer escaping a stressful home environment overrun with childcare responsibilities. She was a 20 year old ingenue student when she wrecked Richard's first marriage, and now she is incurably attracted to her own affair with a toyboy. Sheba's indiscretion renders her hopelessly vulnerable and exposed to Barbara, and the two women are soon locked in an impossible embrace of dependence.

Blanchett remarkably matches Dench's performance with her own rendition of a woman slowly cut adrift from rational behaviour, Blanchett convincingly occupying Sheba's fragile head space as she risks family and career.

The third act does veer towards a couple of overclocked meltdowns, but overall Notes On A Scandal maintains focus on the insidious damage caused by the yawning gap between hope and reality. Barbara and Sheba may be a generation apart, but they are on the same emotional collision course.

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