Former Florida teacher Debra Lafave may have opened her legs to a horny and opportunistic middle school boy in 2004, but she inadvertently also opened a debate about double standards in sexual harassment cases. Reverse the genders and the teacher would be rotting in prison, not viewed as sexy and fascinating fodder for ratings-grabbing prime-time news interviews.
Serendipitously, Zoe Heller's novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal hit stores the same year, probing a similar relationship between a young, attractive female teacher and a male student, this time a high-schooler. Heller extends this theme of pitiful, deluded affection to another character, a haughty lesbian spinster who casts her own malicious eyes on the teacher: three generations of pathetic escape and self-delusion.
This film adaptation, directed by esteemed Brit Richard Eyre (Iris), doesn't address the depths of psychological turmoil its characters go through, which isn't to say it's a shallow, skin-deep portrait of obsession. This post-Lafavegate thriller certainly values the hot-blooded melodrama of love-triangle theatrics over nuance, but the drama is so perceptive, absorbing and extraordinarily acted that its irredeemable characters have a kinetic attraction.
Sixty-something Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), longtime teacher at an underdeveloped high school, narrates the story in acridly objective voice-over throughout, establishing her as an old-world, seen-it-all queen of academia, analyzing students and faculty as if they were bacteria held under the lens of her detached microscope. Much to her shock, she is first repulsed, then spellbound by Sheba (Cate Blanchett at her sexiest), a punk rocker'turned'art teacher married to a much older, caring cuckold (Bill Nighy) while sleeping with her 15-year-old student (Andrew Simpson). Barbara will do whatever it takes to elevate her newfound relationship with Sheba from comrades to lovers, using her knowledge of Sheba's student affair as a bargaining chip.
There isn't much of an auteurist stamp on Notes on a Scandal, but its collective of on- and off-screen talent contribute some of their finest work. It's hard to imagine the film without the Philip Glass score, which, like his equally stunning work on The Illusionist, almost threatens to consume and obliterate the narrative it underscores. Mostly, though, it provides a bravura intensity, an epic wave of gravitas its characters are more than happy to ride. Acerbic British playwright Patrick Marber adapts Heller's words for the screen and finds the tone befitting. Whether culled directly from the source material or tinkered with by Marber, the flippant cruelty of Barbara's narration and the polemical spats the women engage in seem like an extension of his vulgar nihilists in Closer.
Nighy can do no wrong, stealing every scene as the story's most tragic character, and Blanchett acts and looks younger than her age, just as believable when caring for her Down Syndrome-afflicted son (Max Lewis) as when spinning a Siouxsie and the Banshees record with her teenage suitor. As brilliant as she was in The Queen, it's a shame Helen Mirren is already a lock for Best Actress, because audiences will be less inclined to concentrate on this wonderfully repressed and fraught performance from that other significant Dame. Dench is a perfect iceberg, relaying her lines with a smug wit, her eyebrows slanted up like daggers of condescension. When photographed in close-up, she's the very picture of ghostly wickedness. Hate her or pity her ' you can't forget her.