January 8, 2007 -- “Notes on a Scandal” is one of those Oscar-bait movies that comes out at the end of the year, hoping to get some publicity from award nominations. Based on the novel by Zoe Heller, this bleak tale of manipulation and blackmail features stellar performances by award-winning actresses Judy Dench (“Ladies in Lavender” and Cate Blanchett (“Lord of the Rings”) as two teachers in a London school.
Dench stars as Barbara Covett, an experienced and world-weary teacher who takes a younger, inexperienced teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) under her wing. Covett uses her charm to become Hart's friend, but when Covett learns of Hart's affair with a 15-year-old student, she devises a way to profit emotionally from that knowledge. She uses her knowledge of Hart's secret to pressure Hart into becoming her close friend and confidante. Hart becomes more and more desperate as she is unable to end her affair. She is also unable to shed the clingy Covett, who becomes more and more demanding and menacing. Events blow up in a spectacular series of emotionally-charged confrontations as the truth leaks out about what is going on at the school.
If Covett were truly cold and calculating about manipulating Hart, she might have been able to milk the situation indefinitely, but Covett is driven by emotional imperatives as strong as those driving Hart. She is unable to control her jealousy and that eventually leads to her own undoing. Hart is similarly unable to control her own desires, which also leads to her own undoing. The young boy who has sex with Hart is also not entirely without blame in the whole affair. He is also manipulative as well. This all sounds rather heavy, but it actually plays out in an almost comic fashion. That is because aside from Hart, nobody suffers any really serious consequences as a result of their actions. There is no gothic melodrama here. Nobody leaps off the deep end. Thank God there are no “noble” suicides here, as there were in movies like “Million Dollar Baby” or “The Dead Poets Society.” This is no tragedy, but it is a bit of a cautionary tale.
Because the emotional stakes are not very high in this film, it is not a terribly compelling drama, but it is a mildly amusing comedy. The main thing this film has going for it are some truly outstanding acting performances, led by Dench and Blanchett. Yet another good performance in the film is given by veteran actor Bill Nighy, who has a couple of great scenes as Hart's husband as he confronts her about her infidelity. Better known for his comedy in films like “Love Actually,” Nighy burns up the screen with rage in this film. He's even better when he calms down and shows his pain in another scene. It is a very subtle performance as he nimbly negotiates an emotional minefield. Anglophiles should eat this one up during the upcoming awards season, and it is worth a look just to see the great performances. It rates a B+.
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