Review: Notes on a Scandal

I don’t get out much – with friends at least, so when Janet called to see if I wanted to see Because I Said So, I replied that I’d love to go. I had not heard anything about the movie, but figured that if Diane Keaton was in it, it couldn’t suck too bad.

Janet called back and said that she was rethinking the film we’d see. She’d looked at films playing at Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema and named a few. She recalled that the last time we’d seen a movie together (The Queen) we thought that the trailer for Notes on a Scandal looked good. I did a quick check on Rotten Tomatoes and saw that it received a tomato meter rating of 86%. Since Because I Said So only received a tomato meter rating of 6% we decided to see Notes on a Scandal. While I’m glad we went to Notes instead of Because, both Janet and Alison would have preferred the comedy.

Notes on a Scandal which stars Dame Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and Bill Nighy is no comedy, although there are occasional amusing moments. It is disturbing on many levels and I know of several people who would be seriously offended by the subject matter. Luckily for me, I’m not one of them.

Dench plays Barbara, a lonely aging teacher in a school in a poor area of London. Her attitude as well as the voice over while she writes in her diary relays a disdain of the students she teaches as well as for her fellow teachers. In fact, Barbara doesn’t seem to like anyone. She lives alone with her similarly aging cat.

Blanchett plays Sheba (short for Bathsheba?), the new art teacher at Barbara’s school. Barbara’s voice over describes Sheba as wispy and fey. Sheba has difficulty managing the students in her class, and Barbara swoops to the rescue. Sheba invites Barbara to lunch where Barbara meets Sheba’s husband, played by Bill Nighy, and her two teenagers, one of whom has Down Syndrome.

Before long we discover that Sheba has entered into an affair with one of her students, a 15 year old boy. Barbara also discovers this and the film focuses on what she does with that knowledge.

The acting in the film is superb. Dench is excellent in this unflattering role as a sick, lonely older woman. Blanchett’s acting makes you believe she could do nothing about the affair “it just happened”. Nighy’s role as the caring, albeit somewhat absent minded, father is more or less the role he plays in other films, but it serves him well here. Young handsome Andrew Simpson, as Steven, the 15-year-old boy, plays the part of a randy teen aged boy quite well.

Janet said she liked The Queen better, Alison didn’t really say. I liked this film better – the acting was far better and the story was more interesting to me.

Besides the obvious commentary on statutory sex and the themes of unrequited love, obsessions and adultry, this film also focuses on aging and cross-age lust. 64-year-old Barbara desires Sheba, a woman 30 years her junior. 50-something year-old Richard, Sheba’s husband, left his first wife for 20-year-old Sheba, 30-something Sheba gives into her lust for a 15 year old child.

Another small theme might have been the class system. Sheba and her family lived in a big house and seemed to be comfortable, while Barbara lived in a small downstairs apartment. My friend, Janet, noticed that Sheba walked up to her front door, while Barbara walked down. – A little Upstairs Downstairs metaphor?

I found it fun to see that a cell phone text message was used for dramatic suspense a few times, but especially in one scene.

I was disappointed that Sheba’s punishment was so minor. She got 10 months in jail and lost her job, but it seems as if her husband took her back. She did lose the respect of her daughter though, but maybe even that healed after a while.

Related links:

Interview with Andrew Simpson

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