Notes on a Scandal is an unsettling film, uncomfortable to watch because it highlights some of the darkest aspects of the human condition. It’s a film about loneliness, secrecy and obsession, and thanks to incredible performances by its leading ladies, it succeeds as a thriller.
Barbara Covett (Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents) is an aging schoolteacher and a voracious diarist. When young, beautiful Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett, The Aviator) shows up as the high school’s new art teache…, Barbara initiates a friendship. Sheba invites Barbara to lunch with her husband and two children, and although Barbara comes off a bit odd about the friendship, all seems to be fine. That is, until Barbara discovers Sheba’s dark secret: she’s having an affair with one of her students, a 15-year-old boy. Revealing a dark side to her intentions for Sheba’s companionship, Barbara promises to keep the illegal affair under wraps, in hopes that the shared secret will bind them together forever. She asks only one price for her secrecy – Sheba must end the affair.
Sheba tries, but she can’t shake her longing for the boy. Their relationship continues, an explosive charge ready to fire should anyone – including and especially Barbara – find out.
The most remarkable aspect of this film is Judi Dench’s performance as the obsessive Barbara. It’s certainly a different role for Dench, but she proves herself a true chameleon here, presenting a character so vile and manipulative she seems more creature than human. Dench received her sixth Oscar nod for this one, and she would have been deserving of the statue.
Not far behind Dench is Cate Blanchett, who manages quite the feat by turning a reprehensible character into an object for viewer sympathy. On paper Sheba is a sexual predator, no matter that the film portrays the boy as the wooer. She’s the adult in a position of authority, and is thus in violation of a sacred trust. It helps that she’s compared with the evil creature Barbara, but it still shows a respectable talent for expressing the emotional struggle of her character that she can elicit a feeling of compassion.
Although his part is relatively small, Bill Nighy (Love Actually) deserves mention for his turn as Sheba’s husband, a kind older man. His highlight scene comes when he learns of Sheba’s affair, and honestly, that scene alone is worthy of any amount of critical praise.
The film is narrated by Barbara’s diary entries, which reveal much of the darkness that lurks inside of her. The narration also helps us understand what drives her, and the loneliness of her spinster existence. It’s an effective tool, employed well by the filmmakers.
My biggest complaint about the movie is with less capable actors, it wouldn’t succeed nearly as well. While the first half of the film is well-paced and engrossing, the climactic sequences play mainly as by-the-book thriller.
So Notes on a Scandal is a decent thriller raised to greater heights by powerful performances. How’s the DVD?
Notes on a Scandal is presented one disc, in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen format. I must note that my review copy was only a studio screener disc – let’s hope that the retail version is better, because this was a pretty terrible transfer. Image noise was a consistent problem, most notably in the film’s darker scenes, of which there are many. Also hurting the viewing experience is a significant amount of pixilation due to compression issues on faster visuals. Underneath these problems, the film looks pleasing, with natural colours and good contrast.
English audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, and at least this aspect of the presentation has been done well. Everything here sounds good, and while the film is fairly quiet, the urgent, compelling score by veteran composer Philip Glass (The Hours) fills things out nicely. The score is a perfect accompaniment to Dench’s narration, so kudos to Fox for doing it justice here.
Audio is also available in French and Spanish in Dolby Digital 2.0, while subtitles are offered in English and Spanish.
Notes on a Scandal drops the ball in the bonus material department. Mainly promotional fluff, with very little of interest or great depth. Here’s the breakdown:
- Audio commentary: by director Richard Eyre (Iris), this is the highlight of the special features. Eyre is intelligent and interesting here, and those looking to explore the film scene-by-scene should give this a listen.
- Notes on a Scandal: The Story of Two Obsessions: by its title you’d think this might be a decent featurette, but it’s actually 12 or-so minutes of ho-hum discussion.
- Notes on a Scandal: Behind the Scenes: five minutes long, and very much the typical HBO-style “making-of” fluff piece. Nothing to see here.
- In Character with Cate Blanchett: two whole minutes here, as Blanchett talks about playing Sheba, and summarizes much of the film’s premise.
- Webisodes: a series of short featurettes which I assume were available on the Fox promotional website at some point. More fluff, covering topics like casting and screenwriting.
- Theatrical trailer: the usual, nice to have, but it’s not going to save this set of features.
Notes on a Scandal is an average film with extraordinary acting. Watch it for Dench, Blanchett and Nighy, and don’t bother with the special features. This disc is recommended for renting only.
Special Features List
- Director commentary
- Notes on a Scandal: The Story of Two Obsessions
- Notes on a Scandal: Behind the Scenes
- In Character with Cate Blanchett
- Theatrical trailer