CAPSULE: In this the strong and disturbing story of two school teachers Barbara (Judi Dench) befriends and subtly controls her Sheba (Cate Blanchett). When Barbara discovers Sheba's indiscretion with one of her students she is able to make Sheba her puppet without Sheba ever realizing it. This is a real departure for both actresses, each giving a furious performance. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
I am writing this review just nine days after the death of Ian Richardson. Perhaps his best performance and perhaps his best known, particularly to the British, was in HOUSE OF CARDS and its two sequels, TO PLAY THE KING and THE FINAL CUT. In these films he played Francis Urquhart, a statesman who made a study of looking innocent but all the while fighting as dirty as necessary for power. In these series he break the fourth wall, making the viewer his confidant as he gives a little course in how to be incredibly unscrupulous struggling his way to being the most powerful man in Britain. I am reminded of the HOUSE OF CARDS films when I see NOTES ON A SCANDAL. Judi Dench plays an elderly schoolteacher whose goals are less ambitious, but who is cut from the same cloth as Francis Urquhart. And Dench narrates her strategies, not by talking to the camera, but by writing a diary and we hear the words she writes, not unlike what was done in BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY, but the woman Dench plays is no Bridget Jones.
Dench plays Barbara Covett, apparently the point of stability and reason in the staff of a public school. She herself is an institution as the moral standard and a woman who makes clear she will brook no nonsense, from students, faculty, or administration. At least that is how she appears. As we hear her private thoughts, her dignity hides a very hate-filled and judgmental woman. Her judgement falls on all. Her attitude toward her profession: "One soon learns that teaching is crowd control." There are daggers in her smiles. As the film begins she is judging the new bohemian art teacher, Sheba (short for Bathsheba) Hart (Cate Blanchett). Sheba is 35-ish, attractive and willowy--an instant favorite with the teachers and students. Sheba has a husband and two children while Barbara goes home to an elderly cat. Barbara is instantly jealous and before long is hatching plans to destroy Sheba by first working her way into Sheba's confidence. When she discovers that Sheba is having a dalliance one of the students she knows she has the lever she needs to destroy Sheba and make the resulting wreck her puppet.
Blanchett is excellent, but in the early parts of the film Dench's acting dwarfs hers. Fear not, Blanchett will come into her own later in the film. Judi Dench is not really a glamour actress, but this role she seems to play with a minimum of makeup. She looks very much the role of a 70-ish schoolteacher. She seethes with rage and it takes a while for Blanchett to match her. The film also features Bill Nighy, a longtime staple of British drama, tough many Americans did not notice him until his standout performance, really the best feature of LOVE ACTUALLY. Director Richard Eyre most recently gave us STAGE BEAUTY, but has directed as well several award-winning productions at the Royal National Theatre. It shows what a fine director can do with two great actresses. The film was written by Patrick Marber based on the aptly titled novel WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?: NOTES ON A SCANDAL by Zoë Heller. Philip Glass's score seems to mirror the intricacies of Barbara's machinations. (It should be noted that Dench and Blanchett are both nominated for Best Actress Academy Awards. Glass's score is nominated for best score. Marber's screenplay is nominated as best adapted screenplay.)
This is a strong drama that simmers its way to a boil by the end of the film. It falters only at the very end, in which the story falls back on a cliché. Somehow the British seem to do better with their school films. Perhaps they have a different relationship with schools than we do in the United States. We did have Evan Hunter's BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and then dozens of imitation. We seem to like to cast the teachers as heroes against the students or vice versa. But we have little to match the drama of films like THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE or NOTES ON A SCANDAL. I rate NOTES ON A SCANDAL a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper