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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Notes On A Scandal

Dangerously Exciting

Notes On A Scandal is an intense thought-provoking psychological drama that showcases the power and weight of dark secrets.

Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is a history teacher at a comprehensive school in London. She soon meets new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) just in time for the beginning of a new school term. Barbara and Sheba soon become very good friends. Barbara who is nearing retirement now has something to look forward to in seeing Sheba each day at work.

She learns Sheba is married to her former college professor, Richard (Bill Nighy), and has two kids, Polly (Juno Temple) and Ben (Max Lewis). The tranquility of Barbara and Sheba’s friendship comes to a screeching halt when Barbara discovers Sheba is having an affair with a 15-year-old student, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Barbara confronts Sheba with her discovery and promises not to tell if she ends the affair immediately. Sheba tearfully promises to end it but promises are not always kept.

Judi Dench gives her the most intense performance in Notes On A Scandal. Barbara has been alone her whole life and it doesn’t take long to assume that she cares for Sheba as more than just a friend. She is enraged by what Sheba has done but that rage soon disappears when she realizes that she could “gain everything by doing nothing.” She knows that by keeping Sheba’s secret, she will be forever in her debt. She’s very naive in her predictions that Sheba will keep her promise and her revelation of this spirals her jealousy out of control.

Cate Blanchett’s performance is outstanding because of her talent as an actor but also because her character has so much to work with. Sheba has devoted herself to taking care of her family for years. She’s stood by Ben’s side his whole life as he has down syndrome and always needed her attention. Polly is a dramatic teenager and Richard is a very kind and supportive husband but the busy lives they lead leaves no room for passion.

She’s a very ambitious teacher. She’s so excited about re-entering the workplace and her visions of what it would be like do not match the reality. She can’t capture the focus or interest of her students. Barbara knows what this is like and Sheba is grateful to have her to confide in. The buildup to her affair is very intense and she sees the secret as seductive. She knows she screwed up but she doesn’t seem to know just how much. She says it was like having a few more drinks when you know you shouldn’t.

She loves her husband but she has sexual passions, cravings, and desires that are not being given to her. Richard has the same needs she does but he doesn’t go out and get them. Sheba had several opportunities to make the right choice and her guilt over her failure to do so starts to eat her alive.

She’s grateful to Barbara for keeping her secret. Yet, not grateful enough as her inability to keep her promise leads her to continuously digging her own grave. Eventually, she realizes that Barbara practically owns her and by this point, everything is so out of control. She can’t just walk away from the mess she made that has become her downfall. She’s so stressed out by it all that the idea of her getting caught almost gives her relief.

Sheba may have been the one to have the illegal affair but Barbara is complicit in keeping it secret and for constantly keeping Sheba wrapped under her finger. She feels empowered by her ownership of Sheba and even when her blackmail gets really terrible, she doesn’t stop. Both Barbara and Sheba are flawed beyond belief but this only makes their characters more interesting.

Towards the end of the film, they confront each other with their immoralities and fight like children. Irresponsible children. Barbara acts like a petulant five-year-old who had a toy taken away from her and Sheba stubbornly feels that she owes no explanation to someone who’s so calculating.

Notes On A Scandal came out in 2006 and I would be very interested to know how this film would be received if it came out today at the height of the #MeToo movement. The characters of Barbara and Sheba could very well have been men and I’m grateful that they weren’t because the extent of their flaws makes for very good conversation. Notes On A Scandal is a film that people should check out simply because it’s impossible to ignore. The atmosphere of the film is very seductive in a very disturbing way. Audiences will find themselves hanging on tightly to their own sanity as they watch these two characters dramatically destroy their lives.

Overall, Notes On A Scandal is a juicy film to sink your teeth into. It’s a drama that makes your heartbeat and keeps your focus intact. The depth and destruction caused by a scandal should never be underestimated and Notes On A Scandal is a dangerously exciting film about ordinary people who get in way over their heads.

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