Barbara Covett is a domineering and solitary teacher who rules with an iron fist over her classroom at a decaying, state-run, secondary school in London. Save for her cat, Portia, Barbara lives alone, without friends or confidantes - but her world changes when she meets the school's new art teacher, Sheba Hart, who appears to be the kindred spirit and loyal friend Barbara has always been seeking. But when she discovers that Sheba is having an incendiary affair, with one of her young students, their budding relationship takes an ominous turn. Now, as Barbara threatens to expose Sheba's terrible secret to both her husband and the world, Barbara's own secrets and dark obsessions come tumbling to the fore, exposing the deceptions at the core of each of the women's lives.
Obsession. It comes in many flavors with varying degrees of intensity, but if left unchecked it can grow like cancer, eating away at our psyches, forcing aberrant behavior, alienating those we love, and changing one's life in an instant. Its insidious nature allows it to subtly germinate in the deep recesses of our brain, then explode with a formidable ferocity, bulldozing everything that stands in its way. After forging its path of destruction, shattered lives are often left in its wake, but like a dormant virus, it's always poised to flare up again, ready to wreak its special brand of havoc on a new and unsuspecting victim. And on ourselves.
'Notes on a Scandal,' a wonderfully searing and engrossing adaptation of Zoe Heller's popular novel, looks at two very different obsessions and examines how they intertwine and affect the lives of the two very different women at their respective epicenters. It's a melodramatic tale of twisted longings, power and manipulation, unbearable loneliness, and family strife that in lesser hands could slip into the realm of high camp. But as written by Patrick Marber ('Closer') and acted to near perfection by Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, the piece becomes a nifty little thriller that's meticulously layered, strangely poetic, and altogether hypnotic.
'Notes on a Scandal' clocks in at a brisk 92 minutes, thanks to assured direction by Richard Eyre, who moves the material along without sacrificing the necessary nuances that lend the story its essential bite and resonance. He also wisely gives his esteemed actresses a good amount of rope to explore and delineate their complex characters without allowing them to hang themselves. Going an inch too far would send this psychological study careening into caricature, but the tone remains perfectly pitched throughout, with sublime accents of caustic wit, downright nastiness, and raw, unbridled emotion peppering many scenes. All the talent involved walks a precipitous tightrope, but no one falls, and it's a relief to see everyone - in front of and behind the camera - emerge from the fracas unscathed.
If only the same could be said for the characters. Barbara Covett (Dench) has toiled for years as a respected teacher in a London school, but her brusque demeanor, direct personality, and unbridled cynicism rub many the wrong way. At home, she's bitter and lonely, and releases her pent-up tensions by religiously and voluminously writing in her diary. When Sheba Hart (Blanchett) joins the staff as an art instructor, Barbara is instantly attracted by her free spirit, sensitivity, and vulnerability. Sheba is married to the much older Richard (Bill Nighy), and their marriage is strained at times by the stress of a recalcitrant teenage daughter and a son with Down's Syndrome. Barbara pursues a passionate friendship with Sheba, who eagerly discusses her problems with the woman, unaware of her predatory nature and unnatural possessiveness.
Yet Sheba, in her own way, is a predator, too, and against her better judgment becomes sexually involved with one of her students, Stephen Connolly (Andrew Simpson), a troubled 15-year-old who complains of parental abuse. One evening, Barbara witnesses one of their trysts, and though she's shocked and horrified by the display, she deviously uses the incident to manipulate Sheba deeper into their own relationship, which soon drives a wedge between Sheba and her family. As the story progresses, the adults begin to behave more and more like children, and as emotions heighten and the longings of both women become increasingly desperate and intense, their finely ordered worlds begin to unravel, jeopardizing all they hold dear.
While 'Notes on a Scandal' presents its portrait of two unbalanced women with plenty of zeal - its literate, Oscar-nominated screenplay drips with venomous put-downs and fiery exchanges - the film's real raison d'etre is to showcase the exceptional work of Dench and Blanchett, who craft finely etched, dimensional performances that rivet our attention from the opening frames. Both Barbara and Sheba brim with faults and neuroses, yet Dench and Blanchett balance their respective characters' inherent ridiculousness with a sober reality that (almost) justifies their actions. Screen acting can be an arduous art, but these two make it look easy, and their combustible chemistry ignites this film. Even as the stakes grow higher, we can't wait for these lofty stars to fan the flames, and thankfully, they oblige.
Dench received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her electrifying work (she was beaten by Helen Mirren in 'The Queen'), while Blanchett nabbed a Best Supporting Actress nod (she lost to Jennifer Hudson in 'Dreamgirls'). Would 'Notes on a Scandal' be as much fun or brandish such a well-honed edge without them? Probably not. Sure, this fascinating story can certainly stand on its own, but it's impossible to imagine any other actresses inhabiting these colorful characters. Both women elevate the material and make all the dysfunction both delectably seductive and memorable. Though the film earns hearty applause, this grande dame and her heir apparent merit loud and lusty standing ovations.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Notes on a Scandal' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A bit of overexposure and instability occasionally taint the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, but most of the time the image appears full-bodied and dynamic. Just a hint of grain adds appropriate texture to the gritty story, yet no specks, lines, or marks dot the pristine source material. Black levels are adequate and colors look true, but the muted palette doesn't allow much opportunity for striking bursts of bold hues. Background elements, such as decorative details in each woman's respective flat, are easy to discern, and shadow delineation is quite good. Fleshtones look natural as well, and close-ups are especially crisp, highlighting Dench's careworn face and Blanchett's creamy complexion. No banding, noise, or pixelation mar the presentation, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. For a catalogue title, this is quite a good effort, and fans of the film will be pleased with the results.
A robust, intense, and captivating Philip Glass score is the star of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, thanks to exceptional fidelity, marvelous tonal depth, and a crystal clarity that allows each subtle nuance and swelling crescendo to shine. The Oscar-nominated music envelops with ease, and adds essential mood and emphasis to the melodramatic story. Otherwise, this is a pretty typical mix for a straight dramatic film, with most of the sonic action anchored up front. Some nice stereo separation expands the soundscape just a tad, and a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without any distortion. Dialogue can be difficult to comprehend at times, but that's mostly due to some of the actors' thick English accents and rapid speech patterns. No hiss, pops, or crackles disrupt the track, which suits the material well and proceeds without any distracting hiccups.
All the extras from the previous DVD have been ported over to this release. Some of the material is repetitive, and not much is particularly enlightening, but it's all slick and painless enough.
Audio Commentary - Director Richard Eyre sits down for an intelligent and engaging commentary that's long on character and plot analysis, but short on production information and behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Eyre's passion for the project is evident, and he describes various tonal and narrative differences from the original novel, expresses his affinity for tight editing, points out scenes that were added after principal photography was completed, and notes how the subtle movements of the handheld camera help static scenes achieve a greater sense of urgency. Of course, he also spends a good deal of time lauding the work of Dench and Blanchett, but his overall discussion never provides the level of detail we long for and expect. Though occasionally interesting, especially if one really wants to get under the characters' respective skins, this commentary is hardly essential, and only those obsessed with the film need bother to invest the time.
Featurette: "Notes on a Scandal: The Story of Two Obsessions" (SD, 12 minutes) - This breezy EPK includes comments from author Zoe Heller, who discusses the "bait and switch" novel upon which the film is based, as well as Blanchett, Dench, and director Richard Eyre, all of whom examine the story's complex characters and relatable themes, and praise each other's work.
Featurette: "Notes on a Scandal: Behind the Scenes" (SD, 5 minutes) - More kudos for Dench and Blanchett dominate this brief and forgettable piece.
Featurette: "In Character With: Cate Blanchett" (SD, 2 minutes) - This snapshot promo allows Blanchett the opportunity to talk about her character and the film, but all her remarks only scratch the surface. Then again, how deep can one get in two minutes?
Webisodes (SD, 14 minutes) - Playable separately or continuously, these five mini-featurettes look at the actors and script, yet tend to repeat the same information. The one bright spot is a three-part conversation between Blanchett and Bill Nighy, who recall how they were approached for their respective roles, reflect fondly on the tight-knit cast and working with Eyre, and dissect their on-screen marriage.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview completes the extras package.
Cate Blanchett and especially Judi Dench are the main reasons to give 'Notes on a Scandal' a spin. Their riveting, Oscar-nominated work heightens the intensity of this melodramatic portrait of two very different women who are drawn together and eventually rip each other apart. Taut, slick, and endlessly fascinating, Richard Eyre's film grips us from the get-go and keeps us transfixed, sometimes against our better judgment. Fox's Blu-ray presentation imports all the extras from the previous DVD, and includes solid, if unspectacular, video and audio transfers. Fans of great acting and a crackling narrative won't want to miss this superior performance showcase, which - thanks to Dench and Blanchett - earns a strong recommendation.