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Notes on a Scandal (9/10)

by Tony Medley

In two of her recent movies Cate Blanchett has affected accents that caused her performances to seem like caricatures, and I’ve been vocal in my criticism. But when she just acts and doesn’t try to impersonate some prominent figure or actress (or both) she can really do the job. She was very good in “Babel,” and she gives a truly remarkable performance in “Notes on a Scandal.” Patrick Barber’s screenplay is based on the novel, "What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal: A Novel," by Zoe Heller.

Sheba Hart (Blanchett) is a beautiful young teacher, new to a school where Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is an irascible, unliked teacher with lots of tenure. Barbara keeps a diary and the story is told with Barbara reading her notes to the audience as a voice-over. Sheba, the wife of Bill Nighy and mother of two children, teenage daughter Polly (Juno Temple) and son Ben (Max Lewis), who has Down’s Syndrome, becomes involved with 15-year-old Irish student at her school, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), a la Mary Kaye Letourneau.

This is a terrific psycho-sexual thriller, as Barbara covets Sheba (the names here clearly mean more than “Smith” and “Jones”). We follow her as she sets Sheba up for what she hopes will be a lesbian affair, but it’s not as simple as that. Richard Eyre deftly directs the story so that this is not just a tawdry retelling of Letourneau-like adventures, but a complex tale of relationships that burst forth from submerged feelings.

While nobody is very admirable, they are presented in such a light that each character evokes some sympathy. However, there was one deplorable scene of Sheba going to the bathroom and cleaning herself. A scene like this has no place in a motion picture. Even so, the performances of Dench and Blanchett make this even better than other good films featuring two women, like “The Turning Point” (1977) with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine and George Cukor’s “Rich and Famous” (1981) with Jackie Bisset and Candice Bergen.

The trailer for this makes it look like something out of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” (1962), the gothic thriller with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, as Barbara is shown in her most grotesque scenes. But this isn’t any gothic horror film. Rather, it’s a penetrating story of the relationship of two flawed characters that has to be seen to be appreciated.

December 18, 2006