Hag, witch, spinster. These words come to mind when describing schoolteacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench). The woman’s presence is so familiar and frightening; I had an impulse to cower behind a desk, hoping she does not call on me. I bet you had a teacher just like her. You always feel a chill before you walk into her classroom. Her glares are so sharp; she can slice off a smile. As scary as that is, Notes on a Scandal goes a tad further. It lets us hear Barbara’s inner thoughts and sure enough, she is even meaner than expected. Well, to tell the truth, I cannot even gauge the degree of her meanness. The old girl has an impressive vocabulary and some of her word choices, perhaps concocted from her own cauldron, are beyond me.

In a condescending tone, she paints the new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) as a fey person. Huh? Who uses the word “fey”? Is this a literate f word? (Is this an insult to Tina Fey? Is Miss Covett too good for “30 Rock”?) From what I could tell, there is hardly anything bad you could say about the new instructor. She is warm, gentle, personable, and inviting. Her curse, if one may call it that, is her beauty. People of varying age and gender develop school crushes on her, even after the fact that Sheba is a married woman with kids. It certainly did not stop 15 year-old Stephen Connolly (Andrew Simpson) from pursuing. With a nascent physique of a man and the lingering innocence of a child, the pretty boy knows how to seduce the pretty lady. In due time, Mrs. Hart is boned and thus, a scandal is born. As the story turns, that spinster and twisted Barbara finds about the illicit affair, but she does not report to the authorities. Rather, she takes the tasty opportunity to blackmail that fey and fragile Sheba.

Notes on a Scandal is an intriguing British thriller. The promise of a scandal whets our appetite, but the acting makes us devour the movie. Of all the major villains from last year, the Judi Dench character has the most bite. Dench is deliciously evil in embodying the monstrous role. In addition to fear, her Barbara also triggers dread, shock, anxiety, hopelessness, and yes, even sympathy. In the end, you might be surprised at how human she is after all. This revelation does not necessarily make her less scary. Since Dench makes her so real, she convinces us that Barbara could normally exist in our surroundings. Yikes. Ultimately, though, what impresses me is that as abhorrent her character is, I secretly and shamefully root for her. She is an underdog and a fighter after all.

Compare Barbara with Sheba. She has comely looks and a loving family. Yet, as likable as she is, life’s blessings has spoiled her. It is frustrating that the art teacher finds her life unsatisfactory. This is certainly a tricky role, but Blanchett rises to the challenge. I have never seen the actress play someone so lovely and she exudes an effortless charm and sexuality. No wonder everyone is pining over her. Blanchett is also good in her “desperate housewife” moments. As much as Sheba wants to correct her mistakes, she still succumbs to her human desires. The nice lady can be immoral and deceptive when she wants to.

What I love about Patrick Marber’s screenplay is that it never simplifies Barbara and Sheba as scheming hag and slutty teacher, respectively. These characters are complex and morally dubious. But they also come across clear as human beings. By the end, their actions become convincing, given their psychological state of mind. If there is a weakness in the film, it can found in the climax. When the story comes together, it lacks a wham of a punch the film really needed. However, this does not diminish the film’s success. I know the story of Notes on a Scandal is of tabloid fodder, but boy, tell your mother, this is one fine fodder.

Grade: A

Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Juno Temple, and Emma Kennedy
Based on the novel “What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal” by
Zoe Heller
Screenplay by
Patrick Marber
Directed by
Richard Eyre
Rated R for language and some aberrant sexual content