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Notes On A Scandal
cast: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Simpson, and Bill Nighy

director: Richard Eyre

88 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox / BBC Films DVD Region 2 retail
[released 4 June]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Ian R. Faulkner
Let me just say upfront: Cate Blanchett can do no wrong (at least in my opinion). I may not like all of her films - some are just not my cup-of-tea in terms of subject matter - but they are never a waste of time or celluloid and her acting is always superb. In fact, to date, I believe Ms Blanchett has something like 43 awards under her belt and almost as many nominations, including at least six films up for the 'best picture' award; a host of BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations and wins; an Oscar win for 'best performance by an actress in a supporting role' for The Aviator (2004); and a further two Oscar nominations, one for 'best actress in a leading role' for Elizabeth (1998) and one for best performance by an actress in a supporting role for Notes On A Scandal.

With my admitted predilection for the films of Cate Blanchett, and the fact that Notes On A Scandal also features the impeccable track record and talent of Judi Dench, you can understand how I had high hopes for Richard Eyre's latest flick. The movie, based on the novel by Zoe Heller, deals with the arrival of a new art teacher, the bohemian and fey Sheba Hart (Blanchett), into the closed and lonely world of self confessed battleaxe and elderly spinster, Barbara Covett (Dench).

At first the friendship between the two seemingly disparate women appears to be mutually supportive and even beneficial: Barbara helps the much younger, and new to teaching, Sheba handle the more unruly elements within her art class, and -despite (or more accurately because of) all the trappings of family - the loving, if distant, betrayed hubby Richard (played wonderfully by Bill Nighy); the troubled and wayward teenage daughter Polly (Juno Temple); and Down's syndrome son Ben (Max Lewis) - the lonely Sheba offers Barbara a much-needed and longed for friendship.

Then, when Barbara observes Sheba, her new someone special, having sex in the art room with 15-year-old pupil, Steven Connolly (played by Andrew Simpson), a boy who has actively and deliberately pursued the, unbeknownst to Sheba, equally lonely and desperate Barbara, the relationship shifts to one of sinister malignancy as a jealous Barbara realises the potential this illicit secret will give her over Sheba and instantly decides to use this power for her own ends.

Barbara, confronting Sheba, insists the affair must end if she is to remain silent and, although Sheba gratefully agrees (she knows her affair is morally reprehensible and illegal), she soon finds herself just as obsessed with the boy and what he offers, as Barbara is with her, and so is drawn ever deeper into the affair and into Barbara's manipulative web, until, at the end, both Barbara's and Sheba's worlds fall apart.

So, did Notes On A Scandal meet my expectations? Well, both leading ladies are fantastic (as is Bill Nighy) and certainly live up to their award winning reputations; the story is an excellent, taut psychological horror, utterly believable, insidiously creepy and, at times, truly disturbing, but, ultimately, I didn't care for the characters, which meant, no matter how good the acting or how fine the plot, the movie was little more than an intellectual exercise.

Notes On A Scandal is a story about two extraordinarily lonely women and the lengths they'll go to find what is missing from their lives. Sheba is disillusioned and isolated. She feels lost and, although she has her family around her, she is as lonely and desperate for a connection to something or someone as is the older, cynical and acerbic Barbara Covett - Barbara's life consists of her time at work, where she is barely tolerated by her colleagues, and her time at home, which she spends alone with her cat, Portia, and her diary, into which she releases all her pent up frustration and despair.

The film and both characters are summed up nicely by Sheba when she tells Barbara of something her father used to say about life: "mind the gap." This, she explains, is the difference, or the 'gap', between what her life is and what she imagined it would be and this, in some respects, is also my feeling for the film.

The special features consist of the obligatory audio commentary by the director, trailer, a half dozen web-episodes, and three featurettes, the first of which, Notes On A Scandal: The Story Of Two Obsessions, is actually pretty good, although the other two are just short rehashes.

In a nutshell, Notes On A Scandal is a damn fine, Academy friendly, well made, and excellently acted drama, but it lacks an empathic grounding and will, I believe, leave most viewers emotionally indifferent to the plight of its two main characters.
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