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Talk about an unhealthy obsession. Notes on a Scandal is a tale told through the diary entries of a disturbed older woman whose newfound friendship with the first time art teacher soon becomes a dangerous infatuation. When the new teacher becomes involved with a student, our narrator Barbara, begins to use her knowledge of the infraction as a means to emotionally and psychologically blackmail the woman she loves. These are unsavory characters living lives inside upper middle class society, an environment that very well could be the main reason for their imperfections. The description from Barbara about how people of this class are vain and self-absorbed, in the end, really fits herself more than any other.

Whether due to the novelist, from which the story is culled from, or screenwriter Patrick Marber, the script here is gorgeous. The handling of the English language is stunning at times and a cynical wit prevalent throughout. Much like Marber’s previous writing effort, Closer, this film also contains a small number of characters and the self-destruction each partakes in, both knowingly and not. As an audience member, you know how the story will eventually play out—there is no way that this woman can get away with the transgression of having an affair with a fifteen year old child, either legally or within herself and her own guilt. The true strength of the movie is the thrilling suspense as the characters fall farther and farther into the web of deceit. At any moment the affair can be made public, and if it does, the results can be devastating. The handling of the relationship between our two lead women is effective and keeps interest in an otherwise simple plot.

The only way the film’s suspense can be successful is by believable acting and writing. I will admit that I never much saw the film world’s obsession with Judi Dench and the greatness she exudes in the field. Yes, she is always good in her roles, yet the stuffy matriarch character never impressed me as awe-inspiring craft. However, with this film I can see what everyone has been saying of her. Dench is truly brilliant as Barbara, a deluded woman living in her own story world fantasy. The craziness is always there, just beneath the surface, waiting to come out and take over. When she delves into the lesbian tendencies, you can see the love she has created in her head for this exotic woman that she feels she can save and make love her too. As the new teacher Sheba, Cate Blanchett also shines. Radiant as usual, Blanchett gives off a lot of sensuality here allowing us to not only see what her student and Barbara sees in her, but for us to fall in love as well. Her descent is completely of her own doing and while the eventual results deserving, her utter self-destruction allows her to finally see what true love is.

Notes on a Scandal could have been carried far by just these two women, yet it ascends one more level due to the phenomenal performance from Bill Nighy. He is the prototype father and husband in all ways and his yelling match with Blanchett towards the end is a highlight of the movie, as well as his emotional devastation. From the climax on, (until the horrible tacked on epilogue), we really see excellent filmmaking and an acting clinic. The final interactions between Dench, Nighy, and Blanchett remind me of what made Closer such a great film, but also how the first three quarters of Notes doesn’t quite equal the eventual stellar ending sequences. This one is a slow-burner with a nice payoff and well worth admission to see some of the best acting of the year. Marber has a way with words and hopefully will continue with his work of the dark and sinister world of upper class suburbia and how complacency in life leads to the destruction of any goodness one once had. Hopefully next time though, the filmmakers won’t bog down the dialogue with an unnecessarily heavy-handed score. At times the music made the film seem like a B-Horror flick, and I wouldn’t be surprised to check You-Tube and see some splices making this into a murder/horror film.

Notes on a Scandal 8/10

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photography:
[1] Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in NOTES ON A SCANDAL. Photo Credit: Giles Keyte
[2] Cate Blanchett and Andrew Simpson in NOTES ON A SCANDAL. Photo Credit: Clive Coote

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