Notes on a Scandal – Review (Spoiler Free)

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.

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9 comments

  1. I never realised how great an actor Cate Blanchett is until I saw her in I’m Not There., honestly one of the best performances I’ve seen from anyone in anything. Speaking of mediocre lit fic adaptations elevated by great performances, watch Enduring Love, Rhys Ifans is superb in it.

  2. All right I’ve added EL to the long old list of films to catch up on, also yes I keep meaning to watch I’m Not There – i have heard so many good things about it – not just Blanchett but also was it Bale that was supposed to be pretty impressive, or Ledger?

    1. Actually now I think back I remember hearing that about EL, alright I’ll get onto it soon.

      1. Ledger & Bale are both excellent but Blanchett is something else. The other 3 Dylans aren’t too shabby either, especially the little black boy.
        By the way, what did you think of Atonement & have you read the book?

        1. I thought it was pretty good, certainly the better of Knightley and Wright’s collaborations (Pride and Prejudice being the other), although I’m hoping that Anna Karenina will change all that. I did miss a rather crucial scene when I saw it and, although it wasn’t hard to figure out what happened, that’s got to weaken the value of my opinion somewhat.
          Worth watching, have you read the book? Or indeed seen the film? It’s just struck me that you may have actually seen it.

  3. I have seen the film – only once, mind, & when it first came out so a while ago now – but never read the book. At the time I remember thinking that it was well-done but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was just a little pointless, like it felt it was saying something but really wasn’t. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain but it vaguely dissatisfied me.

    1. I know that I thought that although it was good I wasn’t hugely impressed or anything, like you I saw it pretty much when it came out – probably when first released from cinema I would guess, and so I can’t categorically state what I felt worked and what didn’t. I’d rewatch it if it ever came on TV and try to consolidate my opinion a little better.

      1. Sounds like that would be good material for a review.

  4. You know, I was thinking the same thing – I’ll keep a weather eye out for it.

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