Notes on a Scandal

Notes On A Scandal is notable for several reasons. First, it’s one of the more adept literary adaptations of recent years. Second, it takes a highly controversial subject — a teacher/underage student seduction — and bravely treats it as just one of those things involving humans rather than condemning the teacher. Third, it requires Judi Dench to act.

Dench, for some time, has been resting on her laurels. She’s great, of course, but seems to have been more the beneficiary of fortunate casting rather than having to engage the acting muscles. The pre-production conversation seems to have gone “we need someone to play a cantankerous old biddy who’s really a softie at heart.” “OK, I’ll see if Judi’s free.” In Notes… though she just proves what some of us suspected for a while: Judi Dench can act.

She’s remarkable as Barbara, the nearing-retirement teacher who takes the younger, prettier new art teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett) under her wing. Barbara, as we later discover, has trouble maintaining friendly attachments. When she discovers Sheba’s secret — she’s sleeping with a 15-year old student Steven (young Irish actor Andrew Simpson) — Barbara’s not-so-subtle blackmail becomes increasingly obsessive, and her true nature, previously masked by a world-weary, wise façade, becomes more obvious.

The result is a genuinely sinister tale. Dench gets under Barbara’s and the audience’s skin without once falling into standard movie histrionics. While the book was more subtle — the diary format only gives Barbara’s side of the tale, and you have to read between the lines to discover the truth — the film opens things up. This obviously undermines some of the story’s surprise but thankfully Dench — plus Blanchett, Simpson and, particularly, Bill Nighy as Sheba’s husband — convince utterly and it’s this sense of reality that gives the film the foundation for its power. Forget Helen Mirren’s painfully overrated triumph of make-up in The Queen. The Oscar should be going in Dench’s direction.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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