Dame Judi surpasses our highest expectations - and the rest of the cast shines too

PUBLISHED: 17:02 08 February 2007 | UPDATED: 14:27 07 September 2010

Notes on a Scandal (15) Directed by Richard Eyre. Starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Phil Davis, Michael Maloney. 95 mins Four star rating It s fitting that a film which takes the drab complacencies of a Hampstead love affai

Notes on a Scandal (15) Directed by Richard Eyre. Starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Phil Davis, Michael Maloney. 95 mins

Four star rating

It's fitting that a film which takes the drab complacencies of a Hampstead love affair and jerks them into all kinds of ugly new avenues should feature a performer whose habitual excellence we've taken for granted, but who still somehow surpass expectations.

The affixing of superlatives to a Judi Dench performance is one of the more repetitive chores in the critic's lot. You've got to do it but it's hard to find ways to make it interesting. She's always good. But I just couldn't imagine being surprised by anything Dench does. Here, however, she really puts in a storming turn as Barbara Covett, a battleaxe teacher at a north London secondary school.

It helps that Patrick (Closer) Marber's adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel has handed her a demon of a role - a misanthrope disciplinarian in a school trying to be progressive but keeping her on because she's the only teacher who can keep order.

The character offers up all kinds of opportunities - she has an almost unlimited capacity for cruelty and yet enormous vulnerability.

The arrival of a glamorous new art teacher Sheba (Blanchett), who is married to a much older man (Nighy), opens up all kinds of new exciting possibilities when the two become friends and Barbara becomes the holder of a scandalous secret.

Marber and Eyre deliver up a brisk, blackly comic tragic thriller which grips and entertains while still seeming set in the real world. The slow reveals in the script are excellently judged.

Some will question whether such a small scale piece really merits a full Philip Glass score with bells on.

It will be a distraction for some but I thought it added sweep and urgency to the movie. I am biased though. I enjoy any old rubbish if it is set to some Glass music.

My only worry is that British audiences seem to have such a wary regard for British movies that they may not pick up that this is a bit special.

The film contains some bleakly funny lines but they didn't get much response from the Soho audience I saw it with.

They enjoyed it but it was a kind of sleepwalked acceptance as though we set limits on how much we want to be excited by a British movie.


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