If there is a theme to the film Notes on a Scandal , it is this one: "Mind the gap". It’s something that Cate Blanchett’s character, Bathsheba, says to Judi Dench’s character, Barbara. She means that there can be a separation between our fantasies about life, and life as it actually is Sheba, named for she whose beauty tempted King David, has no idea that for Barbara, who is watching her with those calculating eyes, that gap is a deep, treacherous chasm.
Barbara is a long-time history teacher in a British high school. She is acerbic, precise in diction, strict almost to the point of cruelty, tolerated as an institution but not liked. In her daily journal – her only confidant – she describes her students as the "local pubescent proles".
When flaxen-haired, absently sexy Sheba the art teacher arrives at school, and starts inflaming men and boys, Barbara is initially skeptical: "Is she a sphinx, or merely stupid?" But a friendship forms between them, which Barbara, in the intensity of her loneliness, soon makes the central fact of her existence. When Barbara discovers that Sheba is having an affair with a fifteen-year-old student, rather than turn her in, she leverages the knowledge to posess a companion who can never, ever abandon her. She lovingly stretches a fallen strand of Sheeba’s hair between her fingers, like a miniature, golden garrotte.
Like Patricia Highsmith’s anxious villain/protagonists, Barbara is more asexual than gay. Her yearning is for touch, any touch. The film’s use of her diary entries puts us in Highsmith-like proximity to her twisted thinking. What’s most alarming about Barbara are her strange conclusions about the interior lives of others.
Most actresses fortunate enough to be working in their seventies choose roles that preserve their glamour. Judi Dench, who played the sexy, steely boss of James Bond in several recent films, has stature enough to command roles like that. But as she portrayed Iris Murdoch after Murdoch’s mind and dignity had gone, Dench is again ready to play madness. Barbara hisses, her eyes gone black with rage and receding into her head, hideous and feral.
Sheba doesn’t come into that kind of focus. We’re given a little psychology: a brilliant father, a much older husband (a former teacher), and the duties of mothering a child with Down’s syndrome. But we can’t see full-blooded Kate Blanchett doing what lost, fragile Sheba does. Oddly, Barbara, whose desires are even more perverse, is more understandable.
The devolution of Barbara and Sheba’s relationship hiccups a bit, as if scenes have been cut. In fact, director Richard Eyre (who also directed Iris ) and screenwriter Patrick Marber (who wrote Closer ) can’t extract a proper third act from the book by Zoë Heller. Maybe Eyre is too nice a guy. As he struggles to back his film out of the sucking morass of madness and damage, you can almost hear the gears stripping. He should have just floored it.
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.