Notes on a Scandal (2006)


(director: Richard Eyre; screenwriters: Patrick Marber/from the novel “What Was She Thinking?” by Zoe Heller; cinematographer: Chris Menges; editors: John Bloom/Antonia van Drimmelen; music: Philip Glass; cast: Cate Blanchett (Sheba Hart), Judi Dench (Barbara Covett), Bill Nighy (Richard Hart), Andrew Simpson (Steven Connelly), Max Lewis (Ben Hart), Joanna Scanlan (Sue Hodge), Philip Scott (Pete), Alice Bird (Saskia), Juno Temple (Polly Hart); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Robert Fox/Andrew Macdonald/Allon Reich/Scott Rudin; Fox Searchlight; 2006-USA/UK)
“Nasty sex scandal drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Richard Eyre’s (“Iris”/”Stage Beauty”) nasty sex scandal drama is based on the 2003 novel “What Was She Thinking?” by Zoe Heller. The screenplay is by playwright Patrick Marber, that serves to answer in blunt terms the question the book poses in its title but fails to completely penetrate the warped thinking with much that isn’t obvious. It also has the bad habit of clubbing us over the head with a voice-over explaining everything we are told we need to know about what makes one commit to a taboo and criminal tryst and how loneliness can be a crippling disease. The narrative is based on an actual case of a female teacher romantically involved with her teenage pupil. Though the film handles its touchy subject matter in probably as delicate a fashion as it could, it’s still saddled with an unpleasant story that might seem improbable but as evidenced by recent headlines such illicit dalliances occasionally take place. The only thing that keeps this film from going the same way as the tabloids are the superb performances by costars Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. They both give their roles the emotional punch and gravitas well beyond what this cheesy tale is about, and keep the melodramatics on hold until the third act when everything becomes overwrought and somewhat absurd. Philip Glass’s moody score helps keep things moving along on an even keel.

Pretty blonde Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is the bourgeois wannabe bohemian new art teacher at St. George, a low-class racially mixed North London school that is functioning better than the norm but not one that seems much better than the deteriorating norm. Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), a refugee from her working-class background, is the acid-tongued cynical elderly spinster veteran history teacher, who is lonely to the nth degree and keeps a diary where she charts her impressions of the people she meets. In a voice-over we hear what she’ll write and understand how crippled she is inside. She’s not well-liked but respected by staff and students alike for her knowledge and ability to demand respect and obedience from her charges. Sheba, on the other hand, is an inexperienced teacher who sometimes loses control of her class. But her stability emerges from being married to a stable older man in his sixties (Bill Nighy), some twenty years her senior, and raising two children, the Down’s Syndrome challenged adolescent Ben and the sassy miserable teenager Polly. The two colleagues hook up and become unlikely friends when Barbara helps breakup a fight between two students in Sheba’s class. It’s learned that one of the students called her a tart and the other student Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson) resented that. Sometime later Barbara discovers her friend is having an affair with the 15-year-old working-class Steven and after confronting Sheba, decides not to report it if she puts an immediate end to the affair. The emotionally challenged Barbara keeps the emotionally challenged Sheba’s secret and feels superior like a mother superior after getting her to confess everything. Barbara plans to use this power over Sheba to forge a friendship to assuage some of her loneliness.

Needless to say a relationship built on such devious terms is too fragile to survive. We also learn why someone as unlikely as Sheba was seduced by the youth. That Sheba’s marriage might have looked good to the outside world but was a sham, and she felt like a stranger to her family and was too weak to resist Steven’s persistent courting of her. As for Barbara, an in-the-closet lesbian hungering for attention and affection, she looked upon Sheba as a kindred spirit and someone she can rope into an involving relationship by holding over the guileless woman’s head the deadly secrets she now possessed.

Playing such an undesirable character is brave for Dench, who at this point of her successful career has a choice of many enviable roles. As for the Aussie actress Blanchett, she proves to be Dench’s equal and makes her undesirable character a sad figure that we probably don’t hate as much after discovering what she’s about. Nighy as the cuckolded hubby has a small part but uses that time wisely to bare his hurt soul and make us feel his pain. What the film can’t get past is that it seems as if the sordid story were taken from yesterday’s tabloid’s headlines, yet it does have something to say that’s relevant about aging women and their loneliness, friendships and fears.