Directed by Richard Eyre
Written by Patrick Marber, based on a novel by Zoe Heller
Starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson
Judi Dench is one of England’s most beloved actress, usually playing a no-nonsense but likeable woman. Notes on a Scandal gives her a chance to play someone completely different – a conniving and machiavellian monster who is perfectly willing to destroy everything to get what she wants.
Dench plays Barbara Covett, a teacher in a London school. The new school year brings a new teacher in Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), who Barbara befriends after she helps her with some unruly students. As time goes by, Sheba, unhappy in her marriage to her husband Richard (Bill Nighy*), starts an affair with Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson) – a student in the school.
Barbara finds out and slithers into Sheba’s confidence, not by threatening to reveal the affair, but by helping her to hide it. Of course, she also has an ulterior motive in this and it quickly becomes a game of emotional blackmail.
Dench’s performance is memorable. Barbara is bitter and cynical, and manipulative to the extreme, slowly and carefully drawing Sheba into her influence. Yet she projects the feeling that she is basically a lonely and desperate woman, who is moved into delusion in her feelings about Sheba.
Equally good is Blanchett as Sheba, a pleasant but flawed woman who is drawn into Barbara’s schemes because she needs a confidante. She is conflicted about her relationship with Steven, but still can’t break it off, despite Barbara’s manipulations. As she says, “Secrets can be seductive.”
The film got Oscar nominations for Dench as Best Actress and Blanchett as Best Supporting Actress, but neither won, possibly because the both had won before.** Also, given the state of the US filmgoing audience, it inevitably did poorly in the box office.
But if you want to see to top actresses at the top of their form, this is a must.
*Who, like Jim Broadhurst and the late Pete Postlethwait, seems to show up in every good film out of England made during his career.
**Both for playing Queen Elizabeth I. Strangely, Anne-Marie Duff, who plays a small but important bit part at the end, also played Elizabeth.