Adapted for the screen by Patrick Marber from Zoe Heller's novel, Notes on a Scandal is the story of Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), an affluent, thirtysomething woman who gets her youngest child in school and decides to undertake a teaching career at a London school for working-class teens not bound for higher education. When Sheba was still in college, she had an affair with and subsequently married her writing teacher, Richard Hart (Bill Nighy), who is 20 years her senior. They have a teenage daughter and a young son with Down's Syndrome.
Sheba is beautiful and well-meaning but undisciplined and vastly nave. Her family doesn't need the income from her teacher's salary, and she lacks the instincts for authority she needs to be successful in a tough school. She can't even clearly articulate her reasons for seeking a career in education so late in life. She's a good mom, and her marriage seems on solid ground, but she seeks a fulfillment she's never experienced as a wife and mother. She craves acceptance outside the warm nest of her home. Though she's perhaps a little young for the category, she's experiencing a mid-life crisis.
And that, along with her foolishness, makes Sheba the target of two pitiable but profoundly selfish individuals. History teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is nearing the end of a long but unsatisfying career. She has never married, nor, apparently, taken a lover, either male or female. She's highly intelligent, quick witted and openly self-confident. She has the command a teacher needs and the mastery of her subject, but no interest in her students and little in her colleagues with whom she is characteristically sour. What vestiges of affection she has left are reserved for her cat. But despite the shield of her universal disdain, she's actually desperately lonely, and when Sheba shows her polite regard and a hint of kindness, she begins to think of them as bonded in an unhealthy way. Sheba, meanwhile, in a mad capitulation to lustful impulse becomes sexually involved with one of her students, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Steven is handsome, athletic, charismatic, sexually aggressive and only 15 years old. Sheba, it turns out, lacks not only judgment but discretion. Her dangerous liaisons with Steven include a rendezvous in her classroom, where they're spotted by Barbara, which gives birth to a plot. Sheba is terrified Barbara will rat her out, but the older woman would prefer to reel her in.
Some elements here work terrifically well. Barbara's withering observations about most everyone she knows are mean to the point of nastiness, but they have such laserlike precision they make you laugh, even as, just as they're intended, you feel bad doing so. The acting, predictably from so fine a cast, is memorably excellent. Both Dench and Blanchett were nominated for Golden Globes and will prove strong candidates for Oscar nods. Blanchett is so breezily lovable she makes you see things from Sheba's skewed point of view. And Dench reveals something unexpected about Barbara in almost every scene. Just when you think she's a flinty bitch, Barbara gets her hair done, buys a bouquet of flowers and shows up for Sunday brunch at Sheba's house with a look of hopeful expectation that recalls many a high school boy arriving on the steps of the girl he thinks the prettiest he's ever known.
Moreover, there's an undeniable sophistication to the human vision presented in this picture. I won't soon forget Barbara's soliloquy about the details of her loneliness, about trying to interpret a Saturday trip to the laudromat as a satisfying event for an entire weekend. In short, even unpleasant people are multi-faceted and worthy of compassion. Like the characters in writer Marber's earlier Closer, however, those in Notes on a Scandal, are ultimately appalling. Sheba's behavior is literally felonious, and her only regret is getting caught. Barbara is the furious hell of a woman scorned. The script asks neither woman to pay sufficient price for her sins, and neither learns a thing. When the picture's anticlimactic end arrives, we're glad to see the characters' dimming images give way to the credits.