I should say that I went into this film relatively cold, having not read the book I knew only of the basic premise and characters; Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a teacher who has an affair with a school boy, and her more than a little incensed friend Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who then tries to use knowledge of it to her own advantage. That said, any content that may have been lost in conversion isn’t felt and the film only lets on that it’s an adaptation when it deploys Dench as a narrator. It’s a device which heralded from the pages but I would suggest that it, whilst often used effectively, is generally not a benefit to the film. Notes provoked a rather conflicted opinion as I watched it; sometimes feeling rather mundane and ordinary, it also at points blasted me away with stunning performances and a real sense of power. It’s not a modern classic but it still demands to be watched.
Taking clichés and tabloid cut-outs and turning them into genuine characters is perhaps the strongest success of this film and with Barbara Covett it really had its work cut out. A lonely, elderly woman who looks down on others spitefully and is filled with a self-imposed superiority, her bad haircut and bad dresses only increase the danger of depicting an empty caricature, and that’s before we are introduced to her essential spinster accessory; a pet cat. Luckily Judi Dench was cast and she embeds such soul and layers into her character that I was instantly convinced by her and set aside any notions of poor characterisation. Indeed the strength of Dench’s performance is so great that it elevates this film significantly and makes her the absolute highlight of the film. Cate Blanchett mustn’t be forgotten however as her performance is also excellent; pulling of a similar trick to Dench in managing to engage emotions and sympathy despite her character’s deeply unlikeable flaws, she more than holds up to her co-star’s formidable presence. I’ve also got to throw in a word for Bill Nighy’s supporting role which allows him to work through an impressive emotional range within a relatively small amount of screen time.
The performances given are undermined by an at times misjudged score and some rather frustrating uses of Dench’s narration. At times the voice over by Dench is spot on creating humour and insight, but there are multiple occasions where we really don’t need to have the action on screen explained to us, and I just wanted to shout ‘Let Judi Dench show us what she is thinking, stop telling us!’. So it hardly ruins the film but does play its part in bringing the level of the film down a touch or two. The score seriously distracted me upon first viewing the film, so much so that I felt I had to re-watch it again in order to write a decent review. Interestingly, a second time around and it didn’t bother me half as much, but still it felt out of place at times and with it’s over bearing presence, it seems as if it may have been designed with a rather different film in mind.
This is a case of a film being seriously outshined by the performances within it, whilst it’s an interesting enough film despite its flaws, without its actors it would not really hold up all that well. One of the strengths that I particularly admired was that the film never really tried to explain exactly why Sheba starts her affair, sure it gives us her situation and position in society but it never presumes to give us a complete and rigorous explanation, which is absolutely to its credit. It is a very complicated situation and rather than trying to tie it all up neatly, the film zooms back a little and plays it from Barbara’s perspective. Notes manages to gain a must see recommendation from me despite being far from excellent, it’s really only because it contains possibly Dench’s best performance on screen, which is saying a hell of a lot really.