***1/2 out of ****
Everyone likes to play devious, and the two actresses in Notes on a Scandal have a field day with it that can earn each of them an Oscar nomination. Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett have had quite a year. Dench being in Casino Royale, Blanchett in Babel and The Good German. This film is a great way to conclude 2006’s cinematic year and for most of America, who haven’t seen it, a great start for 2007.
Notes on a Scandal is based on the fictional book, 'What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal' by Zoe Heller. Taking place in London, we first meet History teacher, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench). Barbara doesn’t have many friends and confides in her diary, which she reads, narrating the movie. At the start of a new school term Barbara is fixated with the new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett). Sheba is married to the much older Richard (Bill Nighy), and has two children, Polly (Juno Temple) a high school teen and a 10 year old son Ben (Max Lewis) with down-syndrome.
Barbara helps Sheba with the frustrations of a first year teacher and during this time they become friends. Sheba has Barbara over to her house for socializing with her family. Barbara however becomes a little to obsessive over Sheba. But, Sheba seems to have also become chummy with her 15 year-old student, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson).
After school Barbara catches the two having sex (ala Mary Kay Letourneau). Barbara realizes that this secret can be her power. She has Sheba agree that she will end the affair. Though, aren’t you also in a person’s debt for them keeping a secret that can end up meaning jail time? Barbara holds this secret over Sheba’s head. Barbara invokes herself into every aspect of Sheba’s life.
Steven though is persistent, still wanting to be with Sheba and she gives in. Barbara finds out with Sheba replying, “It is like having a drink, knowing that you had enough, but can’t stop.” Now, she is in real debt. It is the day of Sheba’s sons play but Barbara’s cat dies and wants Sheba to be with her. Sheba however has to be with her family and son. This is where Barbara let’s the ‘cat’ out of the bag, to the faculty and where the scandal begins with media-a-plenty.
Notes is a steamy thriller that keeps you gripped to the very end; never knowing who to root for. Should you root for Sheba who is under Barbara’s wrath? Or, should you root for Barbara who knows that Sheba is having a predatorily affair with a fifteen year-old?
The superb Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett give a great performance with heavy emotions that carry the picture itself. Bill Nighy gives a terrific performance, though is overlooked by the work of the actresses. Scandal’s dark script, written by Patrick Marber who also wrote Closer, has great flare and spice throughout the picture.
Director Richard Eyre also directed another Judi Dench film, Oscar-winner Iris. In Notes on a Scandal, Eyre never misses a beat and gives depth to the story with explanation but it never gets boring, just better.
A movie that leaves us satisfied, Notes on a Scandal is a superb dramatic thriller that should find itself being nominated more than once at this year’s Academy Awards. Whether, it is for Blanchett’s, Dench’s, or Nighy’s acting, Eyre’s directing, Marber’s script or for Best Picture. Notes on a Scandal is to be highly recommended.