Blanchett and Dench take everybody back to school in "Notes on a Scandal"

by JD Warnock on January 13, 2007

in Print Reviews

“Notes on a Scandal” has everything required of a great film – a smart and edgy script, competent, articulate direction and a story line that doesn’t give itself up inside of twenty minutes. But the thing that makes this film so memorable is the top notch work of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, who give a riveting clinic on how to do what they do.

They are both heavyweights, Dench is acting royalty and Blanchett has already proven she is in the same league with the best-of-the-best in cinema history – she is as versatile and talented as any of her contemporaries. “Notes on a Scandal” is bold, unabashed and unusually well constructed.

In concert with the tour de force acting of Dench, Blanchett and costar Bill Nighy (“Constant Gardener”), the characters and dialogue in this film are astonishingly well written. Unlike so many films of late, walking out of “Notes” is extra satisfying because of its lack of plot holes and underdeveloped side players.

In anyone else’s hands the characters in the script may not have worked as well, but Dench’s delivery and presence are both wicked and brilliant. Dench plays Barbara Covett the all-seeing, wise and contemptuous elder teacher at a British school who’s diary entries or “Notes” become the narrative voice of the film. Barbara is full of cold and fiendish comments about the new art teacher Sheba (Blanchett) until she becomes fascinated with her, and as her interest escalates she discovers a great deal about Sheba, including an illicit affair with a fifteen-year-old student.

Director Richard Eyre (“Iris”) skillfully works all the angles for increased tension and suspicion, giving the audience a revealing peak into Sheba’s hectic life at home – with a husband and two children – and Barbara’s vague past. Eyre also allows the film to be funny.  In spite of the story’s dark and deceitful themes, Dench’s marvelous delivery is on more than one occasion hilarious.

“Notes” isn’t going to break box office records for distribution reasons. And also because of the word of mouth that will surround this picture due to the subject matter.  In the theater it was easy to see many audience members found the film and characters to be icky and reprehensible – again I say truly inspired acting. However, this film will be remembered the way Michael Mann probably thought “Heat” would be, with it’s much anticipated exchange between DeNiro and Pacino in their prime. Unfortunately, “Heat” was underwhelming – this film is not.

Dench and Blanchett are Sosa and McGuire, Ali and Foreman and on-and-on – you get the point. Two of a craft’s best practitioners, wielding their formidable skill upon a fabulous screenplay with a director smart enough to shoot it well and stay out of the way, it really is a thing to see.

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