“Notes On A Scandal” is the kind of film Hitchcock could have created – had Hitchcock been less into thrills and chills and more into soaps and salacious scandals. The movie chronicles the downfall of British teacher Sheba Hart, played with wide-eyed, ‘who, me?’ perfection by Cate Blanchett, who is caught in flagrante with an underage student by her fellow teacher. And, it just so happens that said fellow teacher is the school’s token self-proclaimed battle axe Barbara Covett (Judi Dench). Of course the lonely Barbara immediately seizes upon this opportunity to blackmail the aptly-named Sheba, insinuating herself into Sheba’s family and becoming her confidante and companion.
If movies like “Fatal Attraction” and “The Last Seduction” have taught us anything, it’s that nothing is scarier than a manipulative bitch. Well, that and boiled bunnies. But either way, generally the women in movies with plot lines like “Notes On A Scandal” don’t fare so well when it comes to public opinion. However, in this film the great Dame Judi Dench breaks the mold. At first Dench’s Barbara seems a lot like a more wrinkled, less glamorous version of her other recent roles – a dry-witted, dignified Briton with more bark than bite and a secret heart of gold. But over the course of the film, Dench artfully creates a character whose wit masks an intense loneliness, whose dignity is only a carefully constructed facade and whose bite proves to be just as frightening as her bark. And she does it all with such pathos you can’t help but root for her even while you’re revolted by her behavior.
Plus, Dench’s secret has nothing to do with a heart of gold, although it does delve pretty deeply into matters of the heart. Don’t worry, the secret is pretty clear after the first few minutes of the movie, but I wouldn’t want to ruin all the fantastic suspense that Philip Glass’s score almost single-handedly builds up before it is revealed.
Okay, let’s be honest here, Glass is a genius but he’s not single-handedly responsible for the film’s suspenseful moments. Director Richard Eyre throws in plenty of camera angles that would have fit right in during “Rear Window” and enough dramatic close-ups and voice-over narration to please any fan of the soap opera “Passions.” In fact, contrary to what the commercials are conveying, the film is often more soap opera than suspenseful thriller. And, when it comes down to it, all the moving music and fancy camerawork can’t make up for the fact that the suspenseful moments almost always build up to anticlimactic revelations.
Like most love affairs, “Notes On A Scandal” is definitely not perfect, especially since nothing is less satisfying than getting all worked up only to realize that essentially the climax you’ve been waiting for centers around Blanchett deciding between attending her son’s school play or helping Barbara grieve for her dead cat. But, it is a fascinating study on the power of passion – not the kind of passion that Grace Kelly and Fred Astaire shared, but more the kind of passion that Marion Crane and Norman Bates had for each other. Sure, it’s disturbing and difficult to watch at times – nobody wants to see Judi Dench in a bathtub or the beautiful Cate Blanchett doing the dirty in the dirt – but it’s powerful. And with stellar performances by Dench, Blanchett and Bill Nighy, “Notes On A Scandal” proves that a few hours of really good foreplay can almost make up for a disappointing climax. Sure, you might have to finish yourself off at home afterwards, but that’s what the DVD of “The Last Seduction” is for.