Notes on a Scandal
by Hank Yuloff
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There are many things to talk about in the second Richard Eyre-directed, Judi Dench-starring film: the personality of Judi Dench’s character, her relationship with co-star Cate Blanchett, Blanchett’s relationship with a student and her husband. With so much going on, I found myself watching with rapt attention.
In the trailer, we learn that Dench (Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Henderson Presents) plays Barbara Covett, a history teacher nearing retirement. We have a feeling that she is gay and that new art teacher Sheila Hart (Blanchett from The Good German, The Aviator) is someone she wants to get to know really well. This friendship is facilitated for Covett because she spies, with her little eyes, that Hart is having a relationship with a 15-year-old student. I knew going in, this was going to have a high score on the TENSION meter.
The movie is told to us through the narrative of Covett. She has kept a running written dialogue through journal books for what seems to be decades, complete with gold stars on the better days. On the day of the school holiday pageant, she finds the subject of her crush doing the same thing that got Mary Kay Letourneau kicked out of the teachers’ lounge. She swears to keep the secret, but, in a quid pro quo deserving of Clarice and Dr. Lecter, she uses that secret to work her way deeply into Hart’s life.
Does keeping a secret make someone eternally indebted to you, so that you would leave your spouse and move in with them for the rest of your natural lives? Evidently, Covett has that feeling, and it wrecks havoc for everyone.
This is a stressful movie to watch. From my male point of view, the student is not the one whose mind is messed up. He is just doing what 15-year-olds fantasize about. But Hart is in need of some serious counseling because she cannot give her husband, Richard, one reason for fooling around with a minor. Richard is played by Bill Nighy, in what has to be one of the best performances of the year. He is fantastic to watch. Actually, Nighy has had several good roles this decade: The Constant Gardener, The Girl in the Café, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the extra-special performance in Love, Actually are all worth the rental costs just to watch him.
There is also the unwrapping of Dench’s character. Her past and future become a series of instances where a life not worth living is recorded with stilted vision in those 8 x 10 diaries. You will be left with mixed feelings of sorrow and anger for her but would definitely not want her in your life. She might be taking notes. For the character studies in this film, adults should see it.
Hank Yuloff is a film critic living in Los Angeles.
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