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
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.