This was an interesting case, as I went into this movie with almost no idea of what to expect beyond a vague idea of the basic premise. I'd never even heard of this film until last December after I had just finished one of my exams. A few cinema studies students got together and organized a film trivia night and invited the rest of us to attend. It was pretty straight forward, and frankly the limited range of questions was a tad bit disappointing. Among the various prizes they had a selection of DVD's, and certain participants of the event were called up to the table and allowed to pick out two to take with them.
By the time I was finally called up, most of the DVD's had been taken. The first one I ended up taking was Never Let Me Go (a very emotional science fiction film), the second was a bit harder to choose. I was faced with either Bend it Like Beckham or Notes on a Scandal. I chose Notes on a Scandal, despite having no idea what it was about. It ended up in my drawer for some time, even long after I finally saw Never Let Me Go. Naturally when I decided to assemble my own list for Ryan McNeil's Blindspot Challenge it seemed like perfect material and it turned out to be a pretty tense movie.
Barbara Covette (Judi Dench) is an elderly and very cynical schoolteacher who leads a lonely life. Meanwhile Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is a young and beautiful art teacher who is married to an older man and struggles to cope with the strain of her children. Hart gets in over her head when she gets roped into an affair with student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson) which she has trouble breaking up. Barbara seizes an opportunity when she secretly catches them in the act. Barbara proceeds to begin essentially blackmailing Hart to do whatever she wants, systematically attempting to destroy her life. The persistent conflict between these two drives most of the film.
Judi Dench is despicable in her performance, but manages to convey her character in such a way that you are simultaneously intimidated and curious about her enigmatic nature. It is also an interesting decision on the part of the filmmakers to have much of the film be shown from her perspective. The fact that we actually hear her inner thoughts as she coldly writes down her feelings about the situation at hand in her diary makes her all the more frightening as an antagonist. From the moment we first meet her it's clear she's not a pleasant individual, but she's also believable.
Meanwhile, by contrast, Cate Blanchett makes the perfect foil as the likable if eccentric art teacher. She makes her anxieties about her family clear but at the same time you can tell she cares about them. Her son Ben (Max Lewis) has Down's Syndrome and she obviously has trouble accommodating it but also goes out of her way to try and do her best for him. Even with her affair she constantly makes it clear that she is ashamed of it, something helped by the fact that the student in question is a twisted, perverted human being who has her in his grip just as firmly as Barbara.
The supporting cast is also very good. Bill Nighy also appears as Hart's husband, in which he is also quite likable. The relationship between the two of them feels very real and you can easily find yourself wanting to see the two of them make things work. Their kids also seem like real kids, and it is not hard to see where Hart's mix of emotions comes from, and of course Andrew Simpson is appropriately easy to despise as the perverted teenager who sets everything in motion. At the core, however, the story is really about the interactions between Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, and those are arguably the best parts.
It's kinda sad that I hadn't found out about this movie sooner, and even if I had seen previews for it back in 2006 I probably would have dismissed it as being dull and boring or not something that would have interested me. It really is a very good movie with possibly one of Judi Dench's best performances. It's a tense little thriller with some very compelling characters who play of of each other brilliantly and a conflict that will keep you going with no idea of where you'll end up. It is definitely worth it's 92 minute running time and I would suggest giving it a watch.