It’s a sheer thrill to see powerhouse actresses lock horns in an emotional battle royale, and Notes on a Scandal gives us two of the English-speaking world’s finest in pitched combat.
Judi Dench, the most prolific and pedigreed actress of her generation, and Cate Blanchett, arguably the most accomplished of hers, play seemingly unremarkable women whose hidden passions set them on a tragic collision course. The casting raises high expectations and this wicked psychological drama delivers in spades.
At first glance you might take dowdy London schoolteacher Barbara Covett for a harmless spinster. She reveals her true nature only in her notebooks, unleashing her contempt for her students — “future plumbers … shoplifters and terrorists” — and her creepy fascination with the new art instructor, Sheba Hart. Lissome, naive and sensual, Sheba becomes the focus of Barbara’s lonely-hearts fantasies.
The younger beauty has ill-advised yearnings, as well. Unfulfilled in her marriage to an older man and mother of a boy with Down syndrome, she stumbles into a clandestine affair. Sheba foolishly takes up with her seductive student Steven, a doe-eyed hooligan with sad tales of parental abuse and a junior rugby player’s physique. When Barbara discovers the relationship, she promises to keep Sheba’s secret, while using her newfound power to manipulate her way into her colleague’s life and, she madly hopes, her heart. When Sheba realizes that her confessor and confidante aims to control her through emotional blackmail, she retaliates with a firestorm of abuse that scars them both.
Dench narrates the film exquisitely, her acid tones and condescending observations highlighting her character’s delusional sense of superiority. When she arrives at Sheba’s home for a casual lunch, overdressed and strenuously friendly, Barbara’s neediness approaches pathos, while her voiceover portrays her as a calm, confident huntress stalking her prey. On first sight, she can’t decide whether Sheba is “a sphinx or stupid.” She shoots voodoo glances at Sheba’s aging bohemian-academic husband (Bill Nighy) and writes him off as “a crumbling patriarch.” What the camera shows us, and she can’t see, are the time-tested bonds of love that unite Sheba’s family even in betrayal and crisis.
Blanchett’s character covers more emotional ground, growing from an enchanting woman-child to a fool for love and finally a pummeled wreck. She is as unguarded as Dench is devious, sharing her dreams and discontents as her scheming co-worker files them away for ammunition. The characters are equally reprehensible in their actions, but Sheba is morose when she faces the damage she has caused. Her trip to the edge has probably taught her something humbling. The troubling, Hitchcockian finale, tickled by Philip Glass’ eerie score, shows us that Barbara is irredeemable and one should be very careful about chatting in the park with elderly women.