Notes on a Scandal (15)

ANDREW CLARKE Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett play teachers at a London comprehensive school. Dench is Barbara, the crusty veteran of the history department, while Blanchett is the young, free-wheeling art teacher Sheba, who is the latest addition to the staff.

ANDREW CLARKE

A dazzling, contemporary drama, based on a best-seller - this is the sort of film that we Brits do so well.

The 90-minute film rattles by in a twinkling of an eye and is utterly compelling from start to finish.

Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett play teachers at a London comprehensive school. Dench is Barbara, the crusty veteran of the history department, while Blanchett is the young, free-wheeling art teacher Sheba, who is the latest addition to the staff.

Dench's Barbara comes across as a fierce disciplinarian, but inside she is harbouring a dark secret. Cate's Sheba, likewise, seems happy and carefree, but she too is not what she seems.

Barbara is a lonely spinster who is looking for someone to share her life with, while Sheba is looking for freedom, feeling enclosed by her life with lecturer husband Bill Nighy and their two children, one of whom suffers from Down's Syndrome.

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Adapted from Zoe Heller's novel by playwright Patrick Marber, Notes on a Scandal is a film that grabs you from the opening seconds and refuses to let go.

Richard Eyre compiles a collage of shots of school life which are narrated, diary style, by an unseen Judi Dench which firmly sets the tone of the film.

While Blanchett's Sheba is a naive dreamer, Judi Dench's Barbara should be a deeply unsympathetic predator, but Dench imbues her character with such humanity that you actually feel sorry for her - not that she is asking for your sympathy.

In fact, by the end of the film, you are thinking "You witch" when ever she appears on screen. And yet, she remains a believable person and you can understand why she does the things she does.

Dench has been justifiably nominated for a Bafta and an Oscar for her performance and to be honest it is difficult to see any Hollywood A-lister taking on such an unsympathetic role and making her so real.

If Dench has all the showy moments, then Cate Blanchett (also Oscar-nominated) does a wonderful job in matching her with a character which, in the hands of a lesser actress, could seem bland by comparison.

Barbara longs to make Sheba her special friend and the pair seem to be very friendly in a platonic way but this quickly becomes unsatisfying for Barbara - who always wants more. We learn at one point that her previous "special friend" sought a restraining order before moving to another school.

However, Barbara is secretly delighted when she spies Sheba engaged in sexual activity with a 15-year-old art student (Andrew Simpson). This gives her something to hold over her.

She pretends to be her friend, saying she won't report it to the headmaster providing she ends the affair and quietly tries to also separate her from her husband.

It's great to see Bill Nighy in a more subdued role as Blanchett's older husband. Although he plays eccentrics very well, it makes a refreshing change to see him as a recognisable man in the street.

The performances, Richard Eyre's direction and Patrick Marber's razor-sharp screenplay means that not a second of this film is wasted.

It will certainly be in many people's best films of the year list in 12 months' time.

Stunning. Excellent.

 

 

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