Notes on a Scandal

It's hard to think of two more accomplished actresses in cinema today than British Judi Dench and Aussie Cate Blanchett, arguably the most versatile performers of their respective generations. And now they are paired together for the first time in “Notes on a Scandal,” directed by Richard Eyre and based on Zoe Heller's well-received 2003 novel, “What Was She Thinking” adapted to the screen by playwright Patrick Marber (“Closer”).

Blanchett plays Sheba Hart, an art teacher who gets involved in a sexual affair with one of her teenage students. Dench plays her nose colleague, an older lesbian teacher who knows Sheba's secret and gets obsessive with her and the whole issue.

Unfortunately, what begins as a subtle and poignant character study of the shifting relationship between two disparate women gradually devolves into a hysterical melodrama, ending up as a sleazy tabloid-like picture with lots of yelling and screaming and smacking across the face.

With a running time of 90 minutes, the picture is roughly divided into three parts, which are sharply uneven in quality and intensity. If the whole movie were like its first reel, “Notes on a Scandal” could have been a thoughtful, witty entertainment, with sharp, often catty dialogue between the two femmes. But, alas, lacking discipline, taste, and discretion, Eyre loses control over his narrative, and lets it escalate into a cheap melodrama, which the book was not.

I had strong reservations about Eyre's direction of the biopic “Iris,” though at the very least, he coaxed strong, Oscar-caliber performances from his two leads, Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, playing the author Iris Murdock at different phases of her career. Same could be said about this flawed picture, hovering between theater and cinema and lacking modulated tone, in which all the performances, female and male, are good.

“Notes on a Scandal” is a disquieting tale whose apparent issue seems to be a sex scandal (based on an actual case), but then shrewdly turns into something else, an anatomy of female camaraderie, trust, and betrayal.

As the novel's title and its first chapters suggest, the surface plot concerns a tabloid sizzler of a scandal. Sheba Hart (Blanchette), a 41-year-old art teacher, arrives at North London flaunting the kind of glamour that immediately grabs the boys' attention; most of the other teachers and principal are older and unattractive.

Sheba is subjected to erotically charged-looks, the kind of which prevail in such situations. At once more aggressive and sensitive, 15-year-old Steven Connolly, a bright boy with mild artistic talents decides to take action, so to speak, and thus becomes a suitor.

Within weeks of her arrival, Sheba, a mother of two and the presumably contented wife of a lecturer 20 years her senior (Bill Nighy), is having an affair with the grammatically challenged adolescent on the art-room floor, and later underneath his own house and in dark alleys.

Neither Sheba nor Connolly tell the story in their own words, and nor is it presented from their subjective POV. Instead, the book and the film give us a third party's “factual” account of the youth's involvement with his teacher. (An issue that's been on the news lately)

Blessedly, “Notes on a Scandal” is neither a saga in praise of mature women, nor a “Death in Venice” reverie on the beauty of young potent males. As viewers, we're held at emotional remove throughout by Barbara's witty but deviant narration, delivered by Judi Dench to perfection, with emphasis on key words. We are also immediately told how the affair ends, which eliminates the possibilities of titillating thrills and cheap pleasure.

The narrator, Barbara Covett, is the self-appointed chronicler of Sheba's affair, whose alarming zeal in undertaking her task includes the use of gold stars to emphasize important events and the timeline in her journal, which she records meticulously night after night in her solitude.

Who's Barbara Close to retirement age, she's a colleague who pretends to be Sheba's friend, but we are a step ahead of Sheba and we realize that she is a lonely lesbian who has taught history for several decades and lives in Archway with her cat; in the book, Barbara's sexual orientation is more ambiguous.

When Sheba first arrives, Barbara immediately senses that this woman will be different from the other staff-room colleagues. Spotting the two early on, Barbara finds the relationship abhorrent, but she is the only adult in whom Sheba can confide. So when the liaison is found out and Sheba's life falls apart, Barbara is there “to help.”

Given sharp words from playwright Patrick Marber, Barbara at first defends the alleged child-molester. The disturbing undercurrent of Barbara's psyche drives the movie more powerfully than the tale of underage sex. “This is not a story about me,” Barbara says early on, but of course it is.

Sheba loses control and descends into a life of turmoil and chaos, defined by frantic calls, Hampstead Heath sex sessions with Connolly. Simultaneously, Sheba takes care of a rebellious teen in her life, her own mentally challenged son (in the book, it's a 17-year-old daughter).

Meanwhile, self-appointed guardian Barbara is both slavering and snapping in the background as her fixation with Sheba takes on the shape of an obsessive stalkernot unlike Glenn Close's Alex in “Fatal Attraction,” albeit for different purposes.

The turning point in the unusual relationship occurs when Barbara is forced to put her only companion, her cat, to sleep, and Sheba shows “insensitivity” in consoling her. Harassing Sheba on the street, demanding her company, while her husband and son wait for her in the car, Sheba refuses to oblige, showing her commitment to her family over friendship with Barbara.

Painfully conscious of her working class origins, embittered and obsessive, Barbara trails a history of social rejection that only stokes her determination to lap up every fragment of Sheba's full life. At first, it's not easy to decide whether Barbara's impulses stem from suppressed lesbianism, maternal frustration, or simply pathological deviance; we are given some of her history with other women at school. And the very last scene (which can't be told here) suggests Barbara's resilience as well as her doomed fate.

As noted, with the exception of the middle reel, most of the saga belongs to Barbara, the older colleague who becomes Sheba's confidante and slowly manipulates the situation to make Sheba entirely dependent on her. Upon revelation of the affair, Sheba is kicked out of the house by her husband. By the end, in a brief yet glorious inversion, Barbara has become mother, nurse, companion, and would-be-lover to Sheba, the “celebrity deviant,” who now sleeps on a princess bed and eats nursery food. Eventually, the incident leads to staggering betrayal and tabloid indignation, with journalists and photographers stalking the two women in their sensationalistic desire to cover the story in its minutia detail.

An addictive read, the novel was both fascinating and irritating in its bold defiance of literary genre and change of purpose. However, what's effective on page is not effective on screen, not when it's crudely directed by helmer Richard Eyre, particularly evident in the second half.

In the first reel, “Notes on a Scandal” is replete with acute observations, reflecting Marber's talent as writer who peppers the dialogue with poignancy, irony, and even humor that propel the tale into an entertaining viewing, just as he did in “Closer” (that Mike Nichols directed two years ago). The initial sequences are by turn funny and bleak, full of the satisfyingly catty phrases that would make a writer-director like Joseph Mankiewicz of “All About Eve” proud.

In their multi-shaded performances, Dench and Blanchett bring out all the sides of their flawed protagonists. The distortions of the unreliable narrator are particularly intriguing, raising the questions of credibility: Is Barbara telling the truth Her description of “the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude” is both haunting and moving.

In a crucial scene, about to visit Sheba, Barbara sports purple shoes, tendrils of hair and other 1970s accoutrements. As she says: “I can live on a crumb of anticipation for weeks at a time, but always in danger of crushing the waited-for event with the freight of my excessive hope.”

What's admirable about this movie (and novel) is that there is no attempt to extenuate or to explain Sheba–it's wrong and she knows this from the start, enough to lie to herself and others about it. It's an abuse of her limited power–Connolly is one of the few pupils interested in art rather than disrupting her lessons. Sheba is not alone in abusing her position; we are forced to confront the unpleasant truth about Sheba's husband, who had also seduced some of his students.

The book, more than the movie, is a gloomy study of female loneliness and obsession. It's a tragicomic psychological tale that continues to disturb long after its last image. It's tribute to the literary source material that despite the film's shortcomings, “Notes on a Scandal” manages to say something relevant about female friendship, moral panic, and hysteria.