Notes on a Scandal is the kind of film that ought to live on in cult film venues until the end of cinema time. It is an absolutely overblown, melodramatic camp-fest, with two gloriously over-the-top performances by Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.
Funnily enough, Notes is being sold as a straight-up-and-down drama and Oscar contender. It will likely get nominations for both Dench and Blanchett, as well as screenplay, being that it is adapted by Patrick Marber, who also wrote last year’s Closer, adapted from his own hit play.
Directed by Richard Eyre (Iris, Stage Beauty), Notes is told in unreliable first person by Dench’s Barbara, a woman who looks at other women as desirable specimens too beautiful to touch but who must be captured in a jar nonetheless. This isn’t that far from Lolita’s Humbert, whose own sociopathic need to capture likewise destroyed the object of his desire. Barbara sees, is attracted to, silently destroys and eventually tries to own (but ultimately loses) her butterflies, in this case, Cate Blanchett as Sheba. Sheba is a new teacher at the school where Barbara also works.
Everything we find out about her is through Barbara’s tainted eyes. She is married but begins an unimaginable affair with a young teen at the school. Barbara, upon finding out about it, sees Sheba’s weakness as a potential for blackmail and a way to “own” the elusive, lovely Sheba.
Throughout all of this is Phillip Glass’ rhythmic, melodramatic score, making the film seem more dramatic than it need be; this film’s strength is in its campy humor, only it doesn’t seem to quite know it yet. Done to the hilt, Notes would be one of the most memorable films of the year. As it is, it requires too much serious contemplation from its audience and therefore falls remarkably flat, despite the one-in-a-million campy moments from Dench, and one doozy from Blanchett.
As such, Notes belongs on the same DVD shelf as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, All About Eve and other diva-on-the-rampage camp classics. It is nowhere near as good as those films, but its performances make it a cut above what it would otherwise be.
This idea of woman-obsessed-with-woman has not been done that often, though we’ve seen many films where men are each other’s obsession. Of course, Barbara is a closet lesbian who appears to not know any other way to satisfy her lust (yes, we’re talking about Judi Dench; do you think it all stops when you hit 40 or something?) than to reach for and capture, then create a fantasy world around women she can’t have. It seems it would be simpler just to put an ad out in a local gay paper looking for a 60-ish bookish lesbian. But perhaps Barbara likes the game of catch-and-release better.
Supporting players lend brief distractions from the action and don’t reveal much about anyone else. This is all told through Barbara’s eyes, so of course no one is going to seem like a well-rounded human, only a one-dimensional fantasy player in her make-believe story.
While we’re supposed to be scared by Barbara for her painstakingly detailed reporting of Sheba’s life and character, it is impossible to feel anything but pity and mild disgust. Sheba is likewise unlikable, and the two together create a film that seems almost pointless to sit through. Unless, of course, you like camp.