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Notes on a Scandal
2006 films

Notes on a Scandal

a review by Tom Condon, OP (St. Martin)

Notes on a Scandal is a very intense, well acted film about the relationship between a Sheba, a married art teacher (Cate Blanchett) and Barbara, an older, experienced, unmarried teacher (Judi Dench).  Barbara, a calculating, loveless woman, narrates the film.  Initially Barbara is intrigued by Sheba, the new teacher on the faculty, yet contemptuous of Sheba’s lack of teaching experience and jealous of her good looks and popularity.  Soon, Barbara inserts herself into Sheba’s life, determined to build a relationship with her.  The audience discovers that this is not the first time Barbara has pursued a relationship with a young female teacher, who ended up leaving town with a restraining order against Barbara.

In the meantime, Sheba enters into a sexual relationship with Sebastian, a 15 year old student.  Even though Sheba knows her relationship is wrong, she is excited by Sebastian’s attention to her.  Sheba’s husband is a good man, even though he is much older.  Sheba also is the mother of two children, one of whom is handicapped.  Her family is good, yet emotionally demanding.  Sebastian provides an escape for Sheba.

Barbara eventually learns of Sheba’s illicit relationship.  Barbara uses this knowledge to manipulate the vulnerable Sheba into a closer relationship with herself.  In a predatory way, Barbara will do whatever she can to have Sheba to herself.  When Sheba starts to pull away, Barbara threatens to expose her secret.

Both Dench and Blanchett are excellent as the leads.  Dench is cold and self-serving, caring about nothing but fulfilling her own needs.  Barbara is not interested in Sheba’s fate; she only uses it for her own purposes.   Despite all this, it’s to Dench’s considerable credit that there are moments in which we feel for Barbara’s desperate loneliness. 

Blanchett is great as Sheba.  Blanchett helps us to understand Sheba, a woman who has made a terrible mistake, then can find no way out. 

It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that we’re used to stories of sexual misconduct and boundary violation, both real and fiction.  Notes is distinctive because it is told from a woman’s perspective.  Not only that, but the misconduct and boundary violations are performed by women.   

Notes on a Scandal is one of those intense psychological films it’s hard to say I enjoyed.  It’s about as far as you can get from a “feel-good” movie.  But the performances and the intricate plotting of Patrick Marber’s screenplay will stay with you long after you leave the theater.

Tom Condon, OP 

The film contains some rough, crude and profane language, domestic violence, adulterous affair with underage boy including some kissing, innuendo and obsession. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

((It’s an unfortunate sign of the times that we’re used to stories of sexual misconduct and boundary violation, both real and fiction.  Notes is distinctive because it is told from a woman’s perspective.))

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