When he was in school, Judge Michael Nazarewycz's most scandalous notes were copied from someone else.
Our review of Notes On A Scandal, published April 17th, 2007, is also available.
One Woman's Mistake is Another's Opportunity.
Dame Judi Dench is one of those actresses whose work I have always enjoyed, but whose body of work I wouldn't necessarily revisit chronologically. It's difficult to verbalize, but it's like she hasn't had a career so much as she has simply been an excellent actress. I look at Meryl Streep—the best of my generation if not of all time—and despite her phenomenal work, her career feels manufactured to me, like every performance is another bullet on a resume. I mean no disrespect, and I would gladly revisit Streep's chronological oeuvre in a second. But right or wrong, I don't get that with Dench. Since I admire her work but don't seek out her work per se, when her work finds me, I am always happy.
Facts of the Case
Barbara Covett (Judi Dench, Philomena) is a dour history teacher at a British prep school. Her mood changes, however, with the arrival of Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine), the school's new art teacher. Barbara takes an immediate liking to her younger colleague and she ensures that the two become fast friends. Sheba is noticeably absent during the school Christmas show, and when Barbara goes looking for her, she finds her friend (and secret romantic interest) in a dimly-lit classroom, engaged in sexual activity with 15-year-old Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson, Good Vibrations), a student at the school.
Barbara later confronts Sheba, who begs Barbara to delay reporting the incident until after the Christmas holidays. Barbara, in a surprise move, vows to never report it, provided Sheba stops seeing the boy. The deal is made and with it, Sheba becomes beholded to Barbara, something the elder lady hopes leads to a closer relationship. But the best laid plans, so the saying goes.
Judi Dench as a borderline sociopath with lesbian tendencies and an eye for Cate Blanchett, who is having an affair with a 15-year-old boy?
Oh it sounds crazy, but Notes on a Scandal is more than just a feature-length plot line from a saucy prime-time soap. This is a study of desperation masterfully executed by two powerhouse leads working from a delicious script.
Leading the creative charge is Dench in one of the finest performances of her career, portraying a woman whose cunning belies her sweet-old-lady appearance. Barbara Covett is desperately lonely (with only the stereotypical cat in her life) and in need of a human companion—someone to take the loneliness away. But mere friendship isn't enough. The success of the film lives and dies with Barbara existing in a Venn Diagram that overlaps with perfect amounts of authoritative, possessive, obsessed, and diabolical. Dench finds that sweet spot and delivers it with great aplomb, deftly avoiding turning Barbara into some campy What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? type of crazed jealous matriarch-figure.
Cate Blanchett's desperation is not one of loneliness, but one of domestic entrapment. She loves her husband, Richard (Bill Nighy, Love Actually), but he is considerably older than she is, and she has great familial responsibilities on top of her career. Her infatuation with the young boy suggests that perhaps part of her own youth was left unfulfilled and, in something akin to a midlife crisis, she is attempting to recapture that. Therein lies the greatness of Blanchett's performance. Everything about her character suggests she knows that what she is doing is wrong, and yet. Even though her actions suggest otherwise, there is nothing lecherous in her approach. She succumbs to weakness, no matter how inexcusable that weakness is.
The screenplay, written by Patrick Marber (Closer) and based on Zoe Heller's novel "What Was She Thinking: Notes On A Scandal," is supersaturated with wonderful language. And unlike many scripts, where the dialogue shines. Here it's Barbara's narration that offers so much joy. It's not quotable in the traditional sense, but it's so worth quoting. For example: "People like Sheba think they know what it is to be lonely. But of the drip, drip of the long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. What it's like to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor's hand sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. Of this, Sheba and her like have no clue."
The title of the film references the countless notebooks Barbara keeps, assembled as one collective diary; it's this diary that fuels the narration.
The visual imagery of the 1.85:1/1080p presentation is very good. There is fine clarity throughout, with only occasional washout in scenes with bright backdrops, and occasional grain in very dim scenes. Because this is a dialogue-heavy drama, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is mostly unchallenged, balancing well the great score and the dialogue. Only when background noise is naturally loud—in the active school yard, for example—does the dialogue get lost.
In addition to an audio commentary track featuring director Richard Eyre (Iris) and the film's theatrical trailer, there are four other extras included on the Notes on a Scandal (Blu-ray).
* First is Notes on a Scandal: The Story of Two Obsessions. This behind-the-scenes offering, running about 12 minutes, features insight on the film and filmmaking process from quite a cast of people: novel author Heller; screenwriter Marber; director Eyre; and actors Dench, Nighy, and Simpson.
* Notes on a Scandal: Behind the Scenes offers more of the same. It features Dench, Blanchett, and Nighy, and runs about five minutes.
* In Character With: Cate Blanchett is a two-minute interview with the actress discussing her character.
* Finally are what they call Webisodes, a collection of five shorts totaling nearly 14 minutes. You can choose them individually or use the "Play All" feature. (Note: The fifth short is itself a collection of four shorter shorts, without the benefit of "Play All." If you choose to watch this apart from the others, there is manual remote work to be done.) These dreadfully low-def installments offer repetitive clips and interview snippets that lend no greater insight into the film or filmmaking process.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The notion of a teacher preying on a student is unsettling. Watching a dramatization of that relationship—especially one with some heat to it—can be downright off-putting. This is no fault of the film, of course. Showing passionate physical contact between teacher and student raises the investment level for the viewer. But still.
Notes on a Scandal has all of the salacious markings of a made-for-basic-cable movie—something some might call a guilty pleasure. But the talent in the film revels in the pleasure and eliminates the guilt, elevating the finished product to the four-time Oscar nominee it would go on to become.
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