by RISHI AGRAWAL
Judi Dench is not necessarily a box office draw for me. And, every time I watch a movie with her in it, I wonder why. She is a great actor and can usually be counted on to deliver a fantastic performance. She’s one of those rare actors who is always worth watching, even when she is in a bad movie. Not that Notes on a Scandal is a bad movie, but Dench’s performance really stands out.
Barbara Covett (Dench) teaches at a school in London and becomes fascinated with Sheba, the new art teacher (Cate Blanchett). Though Barbara’s diary entries (done in voice-over, with Dench narrating) reveal somewhat more sinister motives, Barbara befriends Sheba. Barbara secretly detests Sheba’s “bourgeois Bohemian” lifestyle and Sheba’s much older husband (Bill Nighy). Things really get complicated though when Sheba begins to have an affair with one of her students (Andrew Simpson). Richard Eyre (Iris, Stage Beauty) directs.
Dench is fantastic as Barbara, the bitter, old schoolteacher. While Barbara occasionally turns on the charm in order to ingratiate herself, her voice-overs remind us what she is really thinking. That gap between what is thought and what is said provides both the tension and the humor in the movie. This is a movie that is fairly light on humor, but considering the heavy subject matter, occasional levity is needed.
Blanchett is also wonderful as Sheba, the shy, insecure teacher. Though Sheba’s affair with a 15-year-old provides much of the impetus of the film, she is really somewhat peripheral to Barbara. Even if we consider the film a character study in Barbara, Sheba still provides the focus of the film and its driving force. Her affair, though morally suspect, is explained in terms of character motivation, and seems plausible enough to allow us to believe the reality of the film.
Unfortunately, the film does suffer somewhat from its predictability. Dench’s performance is to be admired as her psyche becomes obsessive and fractured. However, the plot does not provide any surprises. Fortunately, the film saves itself from completely drifting into a standard Hollywood thriller. Though there are some tense moments towards the end of the film, they aren’t over-the-top. We do get the confrontations that we expect as well as familiar resolutions to those confrontations, but to the film’s credit, there is no melodrama here.
Still, this is a film to be admired, both for its performances and its delicate handling of some controversial subject matter.
3 1/2 stars