Remember the song Bizarre Love Triangle by New Order? Well that song could have been the inspiration for the new Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett film Notes on a Scandal. Actually the movie is based on the controversial 2003 Zoë Heller novel about Sheba Hart, a high school teacher played by Cate Blanchett, who has an affair with a student and the lonely, spinster teacher who chronicles the liaison and subsequent fallout.
So far it sounds like a riff on the Mary Kay Letourneau story, but this story is deeper and more involved than that. Take parts of Letourneau’s story, add a dash of Fatal Attraction and you have Notes on a Scandal. Judi Dench plays Barbara Covett, the narrator, a woman obsessed with the Blanchett character. By agreeing to become Barbara’s friend, Sheba gives into blackmail so she can avoid the scandal that would follow if the news of her affair became public. Unfortunately for Sheba Barbara isn’t only looking for a casual friendship.
The movie employs a technique that usually falls flat—the use of a narrator all the way through a film—but Dench adds a delightful dash of coldness—she describes Sheba’s son, who has Down’s Syndrome as “a tiresome court jester”—and bitterness in the reading that illuminates her dark secret.
Notes on a Scandal is mean spirited, and slightly sordid, but is elevated by Dench and Blanchett’s terrific performances.