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"I wonder if she possesses a requisite heft," muses Barbara (Judi Dench) when the new attractive art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett), begins working at her suburban British school. Barbara, a history teacher for several decades, narrates the film Notes on a Scandal by reading what she jots down in her extensive diaries. Her judgmental jeers and observations are clothed in snark—and as entertaining as they may be, it becomes clear that they're not exactly truthful.
She is, as we soon realize, an unreliable narrator. When she first spots Sheba, she is hormonally bewitched—a reaction that the rest of the school, kids and teachers alike, seem to echo. Soon after they become friends, Barbara convinces herself that the two of them could have a jolly future together, pretending to be her pal while making excuses to lovingly stroke her arm.
Since we are only hearing the story from her narrow perspective, there are a lot of things that don't quite add up. Case in point: the details of the affair that Sheba launches with a blue-eyed, freckle-faced 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson), who reminds her of what life was like before she became trapped in an unsatisfying marriage with an older man (Bill Nighy). When Barbara learns of the illegal entanglement, she threatens to report her unless she calls it off, and acts as an active, manipulative counselor when she is weepy. Hey, that's what friends are for.
It's apparent that Barbara is a few beers short of a six pack, but we learn very little about the mental lapses that drive Sheba. What exactly makes a stable, seemingly normal woman fall for a man half her age, who has barely ventured into manhood? That is another story, only briefly and vaguely explored here because of the setup, that would make for an interesting movie.
Notes on a Scandal, based on the 2003 novel by Zoe Heller, is written by Patrick Marber with the same kind of duplicitous, conniving overtones that he injected into Closer; only, for me, it lacks the same bite. Philip Glass's score provides just enough hammering notes to remind us that we're watching something dramatic, in case we were too inept to figure that out on our own. A teacher (a la Mary Kay Letourneau) sleeping with an underage boy while an elderly woman tries to steal her away—that really doesn't need any aid in the tension department.
The last third really goes a bit haywire as the media gets involved, characters erupt into hysterical fits, and the ending heads in a foolishly predictable direction. Thankfully, Notes on a Scandal is saved by its electrifying ladies under the command of director Richard Eyre, who previously worked with Dench on Iris. The film may get too carried away with theatrics, but the performances are amazing; there is nothing better than watching two fantastic actresses verbally duel. When you can hear them over the music, that is.