'Secrets can be seductive', says Barbara Covett, the character that Judi Dench plays, brings to life and makes so uniquely enthralling in 'Notes on a Scandal'. In her world of spoken confessions and written diaries, the best way to get close to a person is to share a secret with them and let it germinate till it forms a mutual dependency. She has another feverish quality – that of forming her own opinions about people's characters, no matter how skewered they might be from reality.
At the start of a new school term, she gets her chance at doing both these things. She spots the new, vulnerable arts teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett). In her eyes Sheba is unfit for the schools environment – she is stunningly beautiful, young and unable to handle the testosterone fuelled environment of her class. But then Sheba does something – unlikely in the context of the how her life is up to this point in the film, but credible nonetheless – she has an affair with one of her students, an act caught by Barbara who uses it expertly to trap Sheba into becoming reliant on her. In her own words, she labels herself 'Mother superior', offering advice and observing with gleeful satisfaction the fall of another person from a distance.
It is fascinating listening to Covett's tart observations about people, especially Sheba and her family, in the form of the films omniscient narration. At one point, after lunch at Sheba's house, she comments at the behaviour of the Hart family noting that 'they do things differently in bourgeois Bohemia'. It would have been so very easy for Dench to turn this role into that of a madwoman, a psychotic female if you will, but the performance is drenched in controlled nuance. Even when Barbara is being unreasonable, such as when she demands Sheba accompany her to the vet who is about to put down her sick cat despite knowing that Sheba must attend a stage performance of her Down's syndrome afflicted son, Barbara is convincing and utterly believable. In film after film, Dench has been able to fortify her position as a strong actress, but in 'Notes' she is able to outdo everything she has done before. Cate Blanchett, always compelling, is able to match Dench in an equally sturdy role that requires her to be adequately susceptible in being caught in the machinations of Barbara's plans and grateful for her support.
The film doesn't fully explore the motivations of the characters – at least not outright. Is Barbara lonely, crazy or both? Why would Sheba betray her family – is it lust, opportunity of the combination of the two? We never learn, though we can extrapolate from what we see and hear and form our own conclusions. The film works as a thriller (Philip Glass' excellent score underscores the tension) and it works as a fascinating character study, but most of all it works because, despite the plot threads that delve into hysteria by the end, 'Scandal' is ultimately a tango of two excellent, riveting, brilliant performances. - Faizan Rashid