The truly shocking relationship in “Notes on a Scandal” is not the torrid affair between a teacher and her student, but rather the warped intimacy that binds an adulterer and her blackmailer.
Art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) and 15-year-old Stephen Conolly (Andrew Simpson) are exploited by history teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who puts both of their lives in jeopardy.
“Notes on a Scandal,” directed by Richard Eyre, is based on the 2003 Zoë Heller novel, “What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal.” The screenplay, by Patrick Marber, retains the conflict of the dual doomed love affairs, but sanitizes Sheba’s involvement in favor of focusing on Barbara’s obsessive need to live through her diary entries.
Stephen, the object of Sheba’s adulterous affection, is a perfect male Lolita — old enough to be sexualized by the camera, but young enough to retain a rough boyishness. The sexuality Simpson brings to Stephen’s pursuit of Sheba makes the affair seem not only believable, but also inevitable.
The only questionable aspect of the film is Sheba’s lack of resistance, which she weakly justifies by saying she feels “entitled to be bad.” This is supposedly explained through her background, which includes an emotionally abusive mother and suffocating home life.
Her passivity and helplessness as she is hunted by both Stephen and Barbara make Blanchett’s Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress understandable, whereas Dench’s nomination for Best Actress makes sense because of her more challenging and unnerving performance.
From the opening voice over, Barbara is cast in the light of detached observer, a chronic diarist full of vicious judgments and a deluded concept of intimacy. Extrapolating from conversational niceties, Barbara begins to construct an intimate relationship between herself and Sheba.
When Barbara stumbles across Sheba and Stephen’s affair, she seizes the opportunity for blackmail. Threatening to inform the administration, Barbara finagles her way into Sheba’s home life, irritating the family and exerting her newfound control until Sheba finally snaps.
Barbara is an emotionally stunted, self-described “battle ax,” able to turn any remark into a sign of binding affection or vicious rejection. Once slighted, she is vengeful, leaking the affair while still playing the devoted friend. That is, until Sheba discovers the diaries in which Barbara keeps a strand of Sheba’s hair and records meticulous details of her daily interactions.
Cinematographer Chris Menges highlights the film’s physicality through romantic slow motion for close-ups and frenetic camera work during physical confrontations. The only thing not treated as sensual is the actual sex between Sheba and Stephen — their rough and unglamorous encounters usually take place fully clothed, on the ground next to the railroad tracks or in a deserted classroom.
A striking aspect of Eyre’s direction is how the adult characters exist in a petty playground world of “be my best friend” and “promise you won’t tell.” The most grown-up figures are the children — Stephen, who ends the relationship when it gets too serious (citing all the objections Sheba should have felt), and Sheba’s daughter Polly, played with petulance and angst by Juno Temple.
Phillip Glass’ tension-inducing score is simplistic enough not to dominate but pervades the film with a skin-crawling soundtrack, a constant reminder that the characters’ behavior is offensive and inappropriate.
“Notes on a Scandal” ends ambiguously. Barbara’s sociopathic behavior is presented as more villainous than Sheba’s affair, yet it goes unchecked and relatively unpunished by society. The film’s resolution, though unsettling, is not unsatisfying. It’s a two-fold cautionary tale on the dangers of ill-advised intimacy, illustrating that past a certain point, there is no easy path to redemption.
“Notes on a Scandal” was written by Patrick Marber and directed by Richard Eyre.
“Notes on a Scandal” received 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.