Judi Dench plays Barbara Covett, a battle-axe teacher nearing retirement in a London inner-city school, who befriends the new teacher, Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchet). When Barbara accidentally discovers that Sheba is having an affair with one of the students, she decides to take advantage of Sheba’s situation to get close to her.
As the plot unfolded I wasn’t quite sure where it was going. It seemed to me that there was more to Barbara’s motives than appeared. Was it just a case of a lonely old Lesbian wanting to take advantage of the situation to get some action, or could it be something else?
Unfortunately, what started as a highly intriguing story tapered off towards the end leaving me feeling that it should have been so much more. At least the superb writing and acting by the two former Queens and Bill Nighy compensated slightly for the underwhelming plot.
I found the most engaging aspect of the film to be Barbara Covett’s first-person narration. It reminded me a lot of the narration by Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in American Psycho. Not to say that Barbara is a serial killer.
In some movies narration is essentially a cop-out by the Director who doesn’t know how to properly tell the story. In Notes on A Scandal the narration is crucial. It immediately allows us access to Barbara’s bitter, twisted personality; the mask of a lonely old spinster hiding her contempt for ‘modern’ families, the education system, and the superficiality of today’s Britain.
The narration also gives us some of the best lines. Barbara is clearly a frustrated writer. When she’s not writing in her diary her thoughts are expressed to us as if she’s writing fine literature. An example of this is when she’s sitting on the stairs listening to the argument between Sheba and her husband – “I sat in the gods while the aria unfolded before me”. Sheba sums this up towards the end of the film with a put-down to Barbara “you think you’re fucking Virginia Woolf!”.
Another problem for me was the relationship between Sheba and the 15 year-old student. It seems slightly implausible, as does her marriage to the older husband. But of course, these things happen. Women marry older men, even older men that aren’t rich. Affairs between teachers and schoolboys do occur. Although I’m sure not as often as your average 15 year old schoolboys might purport.
In summary, an interesting enough story, above average writing and acting, but let down by an unfulfilling finale.