You’d think that the title — Notes on a Scandal— would clue you in to what you’re in store for with this wonderfully beguiling, deviously absorbing film. Scandal! In all its deliciousness! But it takes a long while, actually, before it suddenly smacks you in the noggin: this is, under the posh British accents and actorly elegance and general high-toned sophistication, a scrumptiously lurid piece of B-movie genre nonsense. And I mean that in the best way possible. This is a huge lark of a movie, an enormous pleasure of smart, intricate performances, twisty plotting, and sinful sensationalism. Imagine Single White Female as mounted by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and you’ve got it. Oh, snickered the critic longing for smart silliness, do I love this movie.
Look, you’ve got A) your psycho bride of Sappho who latches like a leech onto B) your diaphanous airhead who flutters through life like a pretty butterfly, and just because they are played by, respectively, Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, two of the finest actresses working today, two of the finest actresses ever, doesn’t make those trashy characterizations any less true. In fact, it makes the whole shebang ineluctably more sublime, more witty: to see these daunting talents wrestle to the metaphoric ground roaringly stereotyped characters plucked straight from real-life supermarket tabloids or golden-age Hollywood melodrama is a hoot. To see them weave such a fresh tapestry of emotion and drama with these characters that you’re almost fooled into missing how cheaply juicy they are is a marvel.
And I haven’t even gotten to the actual scandal yet.
I’d hesitate to reveal the nature of that scandal, except that it’s a twist the likes of which have indeed been all over the real trashploitation “news,” so much so that for the film to have relied on it for its shock value would have been unforgiveable. It doesn’t, so I’ll tell you. It’s like this: Barbara Covett (Dench: Casino Royale, Pride & Prejudice) and Sheba Hart (Blanchett: The Aviator, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) are teachers at what we in the States would call a public high school, a zoo of wild teenagers driven by raging hormones. Barbara is the old hand, a fusty creature who sees her job primarily as corralling the monsters until they can be foisted off into the real world; Sheba is the newbie, a potter whose family demands have kept her out of the workplace for years, but now she’s back and trying her hand at instilling artistic sensibilities in young’uns — she is, as cynical Barbara might sniff, an idealist. Sheba wants to feel an affinity with her students, and — whoops! — that ends with her actually, ahem, fucking one of them (Andrew Simpson). Who’s 15. And she’s already got a man, her lovely husband, Richard (Bill Nighy: Flushed Away, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest).
Now, Notes clearly distinguishes itself — with a kind of quiet, intellectual fury that in a decent and proper world would characterize a helluva lot more movies — from every made-for-Lifetime weepy-shocker that could have been spun from this basic plot. And it does so by giving us the story mostly through the eyes of Barbara: these are her “notes,” her diary of her friendship with Sheba, her take on what Sheba needs to get through this trial. Except Barbara is a bit loony. Maybe more than a bit. Her interest in Sheba is a bit sinister. Maybe more than a bit. Not in that crazy-lesbian way of, say, those hilariously insane 50s exploitation flicks that warned nice young women about the horrors of being seduced by a dyke… but if you detect a touch of that here, you know: tee-hee. The thing is, Barbara does not have Sheba’s best interests at heart. We know that. Sheba doesn’t know it — and the really intriguing thing is that Barbara herself may not know it, either.
There are whole levels of suspense at work here that have nothing to do with “Will Sheba and her too-young lover get caught?” or the criminal-justice aspects of the situation or even the kind of righteous punishment those made-for-Lifetime weepy-shockers typically dole out to women who misbehave. That women pay one price or another no matter what they do or who they are — whether they’re gay or straight, married or single, “good” or “bad” — is an absolute given. What’s going on here — the clever script is by Patrick Marber (Closer), based on a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Zoe Heller; the excellent direction is by Richard Eyre, who made the little-seen but similarly compelling Stage Beauty — is a far more incisive exploration of what happens when two women who have different ways of coping with those prices collide.
Delusion and obsession: they are what’s at the crux of Notes, a fixed object around which Barbara and Sheba orbit. They’re orbiting separately, but when those orbits cross: meow. Dench and Blanchett are electrifying separately, but together, especially when things start to go bad between them? Wow.