After viewing Notes on a Scandal, one might come up with the question "what was she thinking?", which is actually the 2003 novel on which this salacious, fairly mobile drama is based.
Starring Judi Dench (Casino Royale) and Cate Blanchett (Babel, The Good German), this somewhat cheesy, if internally-felt thriller from Richard Eyre (Iris) is spiced in the narrative department by Patrick Marber (Closer). It links loneliness with taboo as sensitively as one could expect with plenty of narration by Dame Dench's diarist Barbara Covett.
Covett and Blanchett's attractive blonde Sheba Hart come to meet at St. George, a multi-racial, low-class school in London's north end. Covett is a spinster of a history teacher, a working-class refugee, so to speak, who'll go on to say how "crippled she is inside." Sheba is the bourgeois bohemian art teacher.
While the cynical, yet respected Covett isn't a favorite of students and staff, she has the control that her newbie of a counterpart, Hart, lacks. Sheba, however, appears to benefit from a marriage to an older man (Bill Nighy of Dead Man's Chest) and an adolescent son with Down's Syndrome and a rebellious teenage daughter.
These colleagues develop a camradie after Barbara settles down two students in Sheba's class who clash about Ms. Hart being a tart. The elderly, hermit of a teacher will find out something damaging about Sheba with that very pupil, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), who came to her defense. A confrontation will reset the bar in their unlikely relationship with some surprises to brew as manipulation and fragility come to bear from a superiority complex.
The deviousness and deception of such a tawdry, unpleasant story kicks in with tabloid inclinations. Eyre does well from Marber's pungent script to let his lead actresses from Britain and Australia, respectively, let one entertain their character's affections, burning desires for fulfillment and attention.
The foul-mouthed Barbara is a risky role for Dench, so good over the years in films like Mrs. Brown, Ladies in Lavender, and Mrs. Henderson Presents, and she nails it in how a secret rekindles a sapphic longing within her. Blanchett stands nearly on par with Dame Judi from the very ill-favored Sheba, maybe not that unsympathetic once the truth of this sad figure is beared. Nighy is effective underneath the sordidness in relating a man's grief.
Notes on a Scandal viciously churns in the last reel into overwrought melodrama as the edgy music from Philip Glass augments a blunt, emotionally-charged treatment of fear, loathing, solitude, and friendship of two insecure teachers.