Notes On A Scandal

Notes On A Scandal

****1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

It is not the revelation so much as the response that ties one person to another. “We are bound by the secrets we share,” Barbara (Judi Dench) confers to her diary. When the lovely Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) morally abuses her position as an art teacher in a London comprehensive, it is her older, more experienced colleague who offers a shoulder to cry on.

Barbara, or Babs to her closest, has been around forever. She treats the pupils as enemies of the state – her state. “Teaching is crowd control,” she tells the naïve, fey Sheba when she first arrives at the school and can’t cope. She’s known as The Battleaxe. She laughs about it in a self-deprecating manner to break the ice. If she hates the kids, she loves women, or rather certain women, and for now, here at this moment, Sheba “is the one.”

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Richard Eyre’s film, based on Zoe Heller’s second novel, is an exceptional piece of work, not least because Dench’s performance must be seen to be believed. Consistently praised, always interesting, occasionally funny, eclectic in her choices, she has become the polymath of the cameo role, whether it be Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare In Love, or the emotionally untethered artist in Tea With Mussolini, or a singular M in the modern Bonds.

Babs is a monster. Lonely, manipulative, acerbic and predatory, she has the instincts of a shark, silently circling, watchful for weakness. Physically tiny, dressed in the style of a pre-war nanny on her day off, with sensible shoes and russet hair, tightly controlled, her eyes flare with rage, or soften like marzipan, as her mind staunches the apologetic insecurities of Sheba’s generous nature and throws a barbed line to this floundering, beautiful spirit.

Of course, with passion, however devious and suppressed, comes jealously. Sheba’s home life, with a husband (Bill Nighy) much older, a tricky teenage daughter (Juno Temple) and a Downs Syndrome son (Max Lewis), imposes on what Babs increasingly believes is hers. She has discovered by chance the source of the scandal involving Sheba and will use the price of her silence to buy time and affection.

Eyre’s direction is flawless and Patrick Marber’s screenplay perfectly pitched. Blanchett has captured Sheba’s nature so well, she avoids the temptation to mock, or make light of, a sensibility that knows no boundaries. Her character is not weak, so much as fluid, allowing crises to wash over her without accepting responsibility for the flood that follows. Inside herself, she is forever innocent.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2007
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A sexual adventure leads to emotional blackmail in a comprehensive school.
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Director: Richard Eyre

Writer: Patrick Marber, based on the novel by Zoe Heller

Starring: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Michael Maloney, Phil Davis, Juno Temple, Tom Georgeson, Stephen Kennedy, Derbhle Crotty, Max Lewis, Joanna Scanlan

Year: 2006

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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