When free-spirit Sheba (Blanchett) wafts into her school, bitter teacher Barbara (Dench) sees a chance for friendship. But things turn sinister after she discovers Shebas affair with a pupil.
Judi Dench is not what you’d consider the stuff of nightmares. She’s more the stuff of stern, yet kindly, queens; blustery elderly ladies in big hats; and matronly keepers of British national secrets/tellers-off of 007. Notes On A Scandal might not fall within the realm of horror or even traditional thriller, but it turns Dench into something utterly terrifying, instilling lonely desperate teacher Barbara with flesh-creeping menace. She’s Hannibal Lecter in drip-dry knitwear.
From the moment Barbara lurks disapprovingly onto the screen, her face a clenched fist of resentments, Dench looms over Richard Eyre’s taut drama, despite rarely taking centre stage. She can skulk on the farthest edges of the screen and still pull attention from everyone else in shot. An early voiceover crutch, in which we hear the venom Barbara would like to spew over her co-workers, quickly becomes superfluous. Dench does not need words to let you know how she feels about someone. She can do it with the reproachful incline of her head or the haughty adjustment of her handbag strap.
The victim of much of her disappointment, and even more disquieting affection, is Bohemian teacher (Blanchett), who’s every bit the woolly-headed flibbertigibbet her trustafarian name suggests. Tempted into a greasy, fumbling affair with a 15 year-old student by the erotic combination of flattery, danger and Clearasil, finds herself quickly in thrall to Barbara, who discovers her giving her charge the kind of oral exam frowned upon by the education board and, indeed, the law. The decision to cast an actor of near enough real schoolboy age (gawky, pleading-eyed Andrew Simpson), rather than a fresh-faced but well-out-of-short-trousers Orlando Bloom type hammers home the awfulness of Sheba’s actions in a way most films would shy from. There’s nothing romantic in their connection, just something insidiously creepy and wrong.
Eyre ratchets up the tension as Barbara uses her sordid new information to draw into a false friendship, ingratiating herself into ’s home where she quietly loathes her husband, children and general wealthy hippy lifestyle. She smiles her lipsticked dagger of a smile, but she’s constantly on the brink of fury. And when it comes, in short, sharp, vitriolic bursts, it’s frightening — yet she’s not a total monster; there are moments when Barbara breaks your heart. This is a woman so desperate for an affection she’s never felt that she’s turned it into something to be kept and guarded and never shared. Her selection of is almost arbitrary. She shows little real liking for her, just a desire to contain something pretty and admirable.
It’s one of the film’s few failings that it makes the motivations behind Barbara’s cosying up to a little too explicit. There’s more menace and sadness when it seems that even Barbara is unaware that she wants more from than an occasional cup of tea. A significant confrontation scene plays a little false as both women suddenly become emotional geysers, venting everything that’s gone unsaid but clearly understood. But it’s a single misstep in a film that excels in all areas and very rarely opts for an easy way out.
Intelligent, classy and skin-crawling. You wont see a better acting masterclass this year.