Dench stars as Barbara Covett, a stern and spinsterly history teacher at a British high school, who’s tolerated and respected—but not particularly liked—by her colleagues. Having taught for more than three decades, she’s something of an institution in her own right, and serves as the moral compass for staff and students alike. Taciturn and borderline icy in person, Barbara reserves the true depth of her thoughts and feelings for meticulously kept diaries, pouring out her soul (in great detail) onto the lined pages with a steely combination of delusion and bizarre emotional detachment. Though it’s never uttered outright, it’s painfully clear that Barbara is a wildly repressed lesbian, whose proclivities have never been physically realized and who has, instead, reverted to a life of closeted desires disguised as “intense” friendships.
One day, a new, seductively bohemian art teacher arrives at the school. Her name is Sheba Hart (Blanchett), and she’s young, inexperienced and casually beautiful with a warmth that draws everyone in… including Barbara, whose initial cold shoulder melts as she begins to develop more-than-professional feelings for her new friend. Soon, Barbara’s imagining them spending their lives together as “companions,” turning Europe on its ear with their impenetrable bond and profound affection for each other.
Problem is, Sheba isn’t aware of Barbara’s increasingly possessive fantasies—she thinks they’re just pals—and things get more than a little ugly when Barbara discovers one of Sheba’s most illicit secrets: that she’s been sleeping with one of her 15-year-old students (Andrew Simpson). Initially horrified and disgusted, Barbara almost immediately realizes the power that comes with keeping Sheba’s secret. Sheba—whose career, family life and marriage to an amiable professor (Bill Nighy) would collapse around her if the news of her affair with an underage boy were revealed—would be forever in Barbara’s debt, and Barbara is quite thrilled to use whatever psychological weapon she can to bind herself to Sheba indefinitely. So, blackmail it is! Thus sets in motion a fantastic power struggle between the infatuated Barbara and the suddenly desperate Sheba, which also ratchets up the sexual tension between Sheba and her young paramour. Suddenly, with Barbara keeping a hawk-like eye on the proceedings, the boy is even more taboo than before, and Sheba finds herself struggling with her desires. Barbara, meanwhile, turns the thumb screws on Sheba in a bid to secure their relationship… which, again, flourishes to unrealistic degrees in Barbara’s demented mind.
The interplay between Dench and Blanchett is amazing. It’s more than amazing, it’s flat-out awesome, alternately gentle, moving, violent, angry and tragic. One scene, in particular, towards the end of the movie and when the veils of secrecy have been lifted from all involved, was so powerfully acted and brilliantly executed that I actually held my breath as I sat, quite literally, on the edge of my seat and watched through interlaced fingers. Blanchett is perfect as the earthy, appealing and blithely (catastrophically?) unaware free spirit, and Dench’s turn as the profoundly lonely Barbara manages—despite her obvious psychosis—to be accessible and believable. She’s not a villain so much as a victim of her own repression, and Sheba isn’t so much a victim or predator as she is a clearly flawed woman paying for her serious mistakes.
Aided by Philip Glass’s ethereal score, Notes on a Scandal is a wonderful, multi-layered character study about two women, their obsessions and the dangers that lurk in the shadows for both as a result. Despite its relatively short running time (98 minutes), the film nonetheless fleshes out every character and every scenario to painstaking—but never tedious—detail. Save for two minor missteps (one scene where Sheba does a weird, crazy-lady make-up thing, and the overall sad fact that Barbara marks the umpteenth psychotic-lesbian character to pop up in a movie), it was pure entertainment. Again, I was absolutely engrossed in it from start to finish, and I can’t remember a recent film that was as thoroughly exciting for me as a viewer. I loved it!
Along with feature commentary by director Richard Eyre, there are several short featurettes with interviews with the main actors. Right after seeing the movie, it is a little jarring to see Judi Dench looking gorgeous as herself rather than as the frumpy, bitter Barbara. There are also a handful of short webisodes included, where you can see cute Bill Nighy and Cate Blanchett fawning over each other in their mutual fan clubs.