...an unfolding of rage, betrayal, discovery, and resolution


An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett can fill a theater. They are bringing in the art house crowds with “Notes on a Scandal,” proving again that movie lovers often love just watching two great actors deal with a challenge. They are encouraged to flourish here by a spare script that requires them to do most of their work with expressions and actions. Two of the best are handed terrific writing, photography, and direction. This is a good one on all counts, no mistake about that. But that doesn’t make it a particularly pleasant experience.

            With her first words, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) sets up her confidential chat with the audience. “Who do I trust with my secrets? Only you.” We will spend the rest of the movie resisting that collusion. She reads sections of her diaries that are brutally harsh, often laced with the cruel humor of her reference to a colleague - “the pig in knickers”. She gives us her reactions to people and situations in candor rather than disguise.

            Barbara teaches in a school she considers second rate. She can silence an unruly group with one yell, just as she can cut another teacher’s ego with a phrase. She is not popular with her peers, just tolerated. Barbara Covett has the mean spirit of an unhappy person. In her job she is the voice in the diaries with the vitriol turned down.

            On the day Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) arrives to teach art at the school, Barbara’s plans for her take shape at first sight. Sheba’s husband Richard (Bill Nighy, excellent as always) is devoted to her. Barbara’s comment: “She got married too young and started work too late.” Sheba is a caring wife and mother, but when she says, “Marriage gives you an imperative, not substance,” we realize she is ready for something more. The more takes the form not of a relationship with Barbara, which the older woman craves, but with a 15 year-old student from her art class. Making love by the train tracks and in the classroom, Sheba indulges herself in violation of all her professional and personal values and then accepts the proffered support of Barbara when she is discovered. By keeping the secret, Barbara has everything to gain. Her chilling victory statement: “No one can violate our magnificent complicity.”

            What follows is a prolonged unfolding of betrayal, discovery, rage, and resolution delivered by Cate Blanchett who is surpassingly graceful and endearing both in her neediness and her love of family, and by Judi Dench, willing here to be filmed in the full dowdiness of her embittered character. If Blanchette’s Sheba is a bit dim when it comes to the consequences of her actions, Dench’s Barbara Covett is a lasting portrait of a lonely, cruel woman looking for a woman to love and willing to do anything to make it happen. Lesser actors could make a hash of this material; these two make it dazzling.

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