Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is lonely. She is a history teacher nearing a retirement she both fears, because of her loneliness, and welcomes for she never truly loved it.
She is un-married, un-partnered (aside from her cat) and has no real friends. Her job is her life, though she hates it, teaching the hordes of “future plumbers and shop assistants” that roll through the gates. Not even the staff warm to her (she refers to a plump collegue as a “pig in knickers”). She spends her time writing in her diary, detailing her life and highlighting good days with gold stars.
Then comes Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett). She is a new art teacher and is carefully observed by Barbara. Initially, Barbara believes that Sheba has an ideal set up: husband, children, a large house, and beauty. But nothing is ever what it seems. Sheba's husband, Richard (a marvelous Bill Nighy), is old enough to be her father, her son has Down syndrome, and her daughter is a bit of a misery.
Barbara desires a friendship while Sheba, naïvely, sees Barbara as a kind older woman. The mother she always wanted, the one who listens and understands her. But after Barbara observes Sheba having sex with a 15 year-old student, Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson), her first reaction is to go to the school principle, but quickly realizes that she can leverage this into a twisted basis for a friendship, after all nothing can solidify a friendship like a secret.
When Barbara's beloved cat gets terminally ill she weeps from the gut for the one thing that has showed her love in her life. Her only friend is going to die and unless she has Sheba she will truly be alone, and when she is let down, Barbara, fueled by grief and abandonment, seeks revenge.
Judi Dench is amazing. She could have played Barbara simply as a villain, and it would have worked well in the confines of just a thriller. But what she has done instead is to create a woman so alone, and so miserable in her life that you can’t help but feel some sympathy and understanding towards her. She is fiercely intelligent and witty, and yearns for some human contact. She has repressed her sexuality for years, and has become a hollow version of herself, desperately grasping at any hint of friendship another woman throws her. As in Brokeback Mountain last year, Notes on a Scandal illustrates how being denied the chance or opportunity to freely express your sexual self can eventually destroy the person you could have become.
As good as Blanchett is, I could not help but think her mis cast. She has a firey intelligence in her eyes that burns through the screen so much so that when she is asked to play weak and naïve she just doesn’t quiet pull it off. Sometimes people complain that an actor is too weak for the part…this is a case where I think the opposite.
Unfortunately, I think some people will not see Notes on a Scandal as a movie about loneliness and repression. They will simply see it as yet another ‘homosexuals are monsters’ film. Funny, considering villain of the film should really be the heterosexual pedophile.