Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Notes on a Scandal
Starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson
Director of Photography: Chris Menges
Music by Philip Glass
Directed by Richard Eyre
Rating: 9 out of 10





Notes on a Scandal is fascinating right from the start. I had the big fortune of not knowing what the movie was about at all. In fact, I was under the impression I was watching Veronica Guerin and was waiting for Cate Blanchett to become involved in politics and spies. This way, the movie surprised me several times because if you really have no clue, you don’t expect many things that happen. The main drive comes from the incredible performances by Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett who are really as good as any review says. In a way, it doesn’t matter what they are talking about because they inhabit their characters so perfectly that anything they do would be interesting to watch. The direction by Richard Eyre is also excellent and Philip Glass’ score is breathtaking (again). It is a captivating movie that forces you to keep watching the disaster unfolding.

(spoilers ahead)

It is interesting to think about what the movie is actually about. Is it about an affair between a teacher and an underage student? Or about an old, lonely woman who gets obsessed with young women? Or about family? School? Media? If you take it all together you end with my favorite topic: our culture. All the bad things that happen here probably wouldn’t have happened in another culture. Which is interesting to think about, considering that the movie presents us with a world that is miserable, cruel and hopeless but also quite realistic. The world these characters live in is fucked up and therefore it is no wonder that they are so fucked up themselves. There is some goodness, here and there, but the movie does make you wonder if there is any room for it in this world?

Barbara (Judi Dench), the narrator of the movie, is an old, bitter, terribly lonely woman that preys on the young. She doesn’t do that because she is an evil lesbian (an impression you could get, if you watch the movie superficially), but because she has ended up in a solitude that chokes her. She isn’t that lonely because society doesn’t accept her sexuality (which is never really an explicit issue, which I found extremely refreshing), but because she thinks no one is like her. She sits in school meetings, the cafeteria, looks out of windows with such a disdain for all the people and their silly lives, that she can’t imagine being connected to anyone. Only in our culture, which reinforces isolation, basically favors it, is it possible for people to feel completely “alone in a crowd,” as the popular saying goes. We force people upon each other, not because they are like-minded, but because they work in a remotely similar area, and expect everyone to get along. The young women she seeks out give her hope because she longs for a connection in a world of seclusion, believing that only people, who haven’t spent as much time as her in this world, still have the potential to share her thoughts and feelings.

Sheba (Cate Blanchett) on the other hand is imprisoned in a different way. She has a family, a loving husband, two children that she loves and is admired by anyone who meets her. But in long, never-ending monologues she shows disdain for this seemingly happy life, she feels bound to her family and not free to do what she wants (note how most of the time these monologues are not heard but only observed by Barb). She has everything but gets lost in an idea of romance, of escape. She also sees something in the 15-year-old boy that she is looking for, but doesn’t even notice that he is not interested in a connection. The movie interestingly doesn’t really judge the affair from a moral standpoint, which Barb also doesn’t really do. Even Sheba’s husband (Bill Nighy, brilliant in his few scenes) seems to somehow understand her desire. When she returns to her family in the end, after having discovered Barb’s machinations, it doesn’t feel like a happy ending at all. She tried to break out of her conventional life (which the movie nevertheless portrays with a certain appreciation), but ends up just where she has started (well, after some actual prison time).

Both characters seem not to have learned anything from their experiences as the last shot of Barb, playing her game again with another woman, seems to suggest. But this world, this culture, also doesn’t offer them any help. There is no easy way for Barb to find happiness since she has entered the phase of “old people” that our society would like to get rid of because they cause so many problems. And Sheba is supposed to be happy because she ticked all the boxes of a “happy life.” If they are not happy, our culture seems to say, it’s just their own fault. But being constantly happy in this culture is not an easy thing to do because our culture does not consider that to be a necessity. And so we keep on struggling, helplessly looking for a way out, looking for a connection, looking for someone. In all its darkness, this great movie can help us by making us aware of the way we chose to live and that there must be a better way.