Retro Movie Review: 'Notes on a Scandal' (2006)

Seldom does a film read like a novel ("Notes on a Scandal" is based off one). As the intensely cerebral work of reading can often be too personal to convey on camera. Getting inside a character’s mind depends on many variables and while films have successfully been adapting fiction's protagonist with success for a long time, it has not been executed quite at the personal level this film achieves.

2006's "Notes on a Scandal" enraptures the audience in the cunning thoughts of Barbara (Judi Dench), a schoolteacher, who becomes obsessed with Sheba (Cate Blanchett), a new teacher at school. At first thinking of her with disdain, Barbara soon becomes entranced by her. Subsequently, her every thought and diary entry are dedicated to the day’s musings about what happened between them or what she witnesses Sheba do.

When she is faced with Sheba’s veritable fall off of the pedestal she had placed her so highly on, Barbara works to use it to her advantage in a disturbingly manipulative fashion. “Scandal” is a salacious word that conjures many lurid images and here it is used with the utmost sincerity, accurately describing what is to come: an up close and personal chapter on two women's slide into illicit self-destruction.

Sheba has a great family; a wonderful husband (a crushingly brilliant Bill Nighy), a teenage daughter (Juno Temple) and a son (Max Lewis) with Down's Syndrome and she betrays them all. Thrusting their life and her own into veritable collapse, when she carries on an affair with one of her underage students; a troubled 15-year-old boy (Andrew Simpson).

The thought of such an act is so repellent and starkly distressing that one cannot even piece together what would drive someone to do it. The great thing about movies is that we can explore the unthinkable by breaking down the motivations that lead to such actions.

“Notes on a Scandal” provides the thorough observations of a character study, striking the nerve of every outsider’s guilty gaze as it runs through the motivations behind Sheba's self-ruin without ever justifying her behavior.

Acknowledging all of the thoughts those will cast upon her, it also provides something insightful, a look behind the curtain of a fallen woman’s dastardly deeds. As vile as Sheba's action are, fully grasping her behavior would not be possible without the startling turn of Cate Blanchett, an actress of esteemed talent. 

Blanchett weaves an intricately intimate portrait of this complicated character; portraying her life as a warm and caring wife and mother with such earnest, you cannot write Sheba off entirety. Blanchett reels viewers in by instilling a strong dose of humanity into her characterization. While also conveying something that is vacant in most films about women having torrid affairs: aching guilt and rightful internal shame.

In one scene, Sheba watches her children as if completely detached from the looming doom she has cast upon them and then in one subtle facial expression, Blanchett demonstrates the crumbling remorse never too far away from her mind.  Her portrayal muddies the waters of moral incredulity and in doing so she gives this character her greatest due.

For Judi Dench, her portrayal of the pensive and unhinged Barbara is spot on. Dench has truly, never been better. Never before has a narration read with such power as when Dench’s voice reads from Barbara’s diary.

You can hear the seething, the admiration and the constant churn of Barbara’s mental gears as she plots her next move. Her voice-over is the reason that voice-overs were invented; it provides true insight into her character.

As Barbara descends into a sort of serene madness, Dench gives a chillingly calculated portrayal of a woman whose quiet unraveling is not made obvious enough for the outside world to detect.

Another winning performance in this movie is the direction of Richard Eyre. His work here is as an auteur, providing an intrinsic and riveting ride that never lets off the tension. The pace slices through the film with the accuracy of a surgical blade. It is bracingly urgent, never slowing down long enough to risk losing the audience’s concentration.

The remarkable aspect of his direction is that despite the forceful speed, he never sacrifices the character depth or focus needed to keep the human drama at the heart of the film. In doing so, he assures that this scandal hits all of the right notes. Rating: 9/10