When I first saw the movie "Notes on a Scandal," I was stunned at the story itself. This is one of the most entertaining and original films you could ever see (perhaps even particularly so for women) with two of the greatest actresses of our time together - how could any film-watcher go far wrong here?
"Notes on a Scandal" is based on the novel by Zoë Heller. Heller's book was inspired by the story of Mary Kay LeTourneau, but this story goes much further with the ultimate "What-Ifs."
(Please note: much of the story is told in this article. You're better off just seeing the film first knowing nothing in advance.)
Sheba is depressed. Life, even with all its blessings, has not been what she hoped. Something is wrong. Even Sheba's own mother has no understanding of her, and marginalizes and dismisses her. Sheba's depression and confusion get totally out of control when she takes a new job as a high school art teacher, and quickly loses all sense of judgment when a teenage boy gives her some teenage-boy attention.
Judi Dench plays Barbara, a public school teacher close to retirement, who is "single living alone with her cat." Barbara makes sense of her life through her utter disdain and contempt for every human being in her world.
Barbara makes no secret of her dismal opinions, and expresses them in her caustic narrative and conversations that are absolutely appalling and deathly hilarious at the same time. (Well, not all of her observations are hilarious - far from it. What's more, Barbara is writing down every last word in a series of journals that date back years.)
If you didn't know you were watching a mad melodrama, the relentless music by Philip Glass makes this crystal clear.
It's easy to look at this story in a surface way, and it's not so far off the map of real life. Now you can't go a month without reading about yet another female school teacher who has a sexual and emotional relationship with a student. "He's 15 years old!!" says Sheba's husband in frantic disbelief when he learns what his wife has done and realizes that she's likely to be arrested very soon, shattering not just his life but his children's lives. Sheba reminds her husband that he was her much older teacher too, and they had a passionate affair. But that, he says, was different - she was 20, and legally an adult.
Bill Nighy is wonderful as Sheba's husband, and Michael Maloney is truly funny as the principal of the school who has to put up with Barbara's contempt for him, the other teachers, and of course, the students. He's beyond thrilled when he finally has a reason to force her to take "early retirement."
Perhaps you will ask yourself, which of these two fascinating characters are you more like? Or can you even see a bit of yourself in both of them, to some degree? I don't think too many women will draw that conclusion rapidly, but perhaps you will somehow find sympathy, not only for Sheba, but even for Barbara. Both actresses in this movie give performances which are utterly perfect. Highly recommended.