Still on a Juno Temple kick, I picked up a copy of Notes on a Scandal (2006), a wry psychological thriller starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. With Cracks still playing on my mind, it was funny to see her caught up in another story about a bohemian teacher involved in an inappropriate relationship… except this time around Temple plays the daughter of the transgressive tutor at the centre of the storm, rather than her reciprocal crush.
For those who don’t know, Notes follows the story of ‘Barbara Covett’ (Dench), a lonely history teacher, and self-confessed “battle-axe”, whose only real friend and confidant is the diary she’s been keeping for decades. Her dour outlook begins to lighten a little when a bright new teacher named ‘Sheba Hart’ (Blanchett) wafts into the school, with a head full of fancy ideals, and a total inability to control her class of rowdy teens. Barbara takes the novice under her wing, and the two begin to form a bond… but then the elder woman’s admiration for Sheba is rocked by the discovery that she is having a clandestine, adulterous affair with an underage pupil! Gasp! Of course, it isn’t quite as black-and-white as all that, because we quickly learn that Barbara sees Sheba as much more than just a convivial colleague… she’s convinced herself that the two of them are soul-mates, destined to spend the rest of their lives together, if only she could relieve her apprentice of all the dead weight holding her back (i.e., her loving husband and family).
It all gets pretty creepy, but Dench is such a fantastic actress, you can’t help feeling some sympathy for her character. And even though Barbara takes a lot of the blame for “ruining” Sheba’s life by dangling the threat of exposure over her head, Sheba is the one who chose to commit an actual crime… not just once, in the heat of the moment, but several times, over an extended period of time. It’s a fascinating story really… with a lot of moral ambiguity to chew over, and some incredibly nuanced performances to enjoy. I know it’s not really fair to compare the two films, but given a straight choice I’d say I probably prefer Cracks, because it had such a unique setting, more outwardly outlandish characters, and much higher stakes… but I can understand why others might favour the low-key approach taken by Notes, which keeps one foot firmly planted in our mundane, modern reality at all times. Apparently the critics and judges certainly did, because the main cast and screenwriter (Patrick Marber, of Knowing Me, Knowing You fame) were showered with plaudits and award nominations.
On the DVD commentary, the director (Richard Eyre) claims that this was Temple’s “first appearance on film”… but her IMDb and Wikipedia pages seem to contradict that statement. Still, I’d agree that she gives a remarkably assured performance here, considering she only had a couple of screen credits under her belt at that point. If you look at the first few major films she made, it’s remarkable how many big emotional scenes she had to sob her way through… often without any immediate impetus to set her up for the sort of distress she was expected to exhibit. They just keep cutting to her randomly entering or leaving a room crying! Must get rather tiring after a while… so I imagine St. Trinian’s was a welcome respite from all those heavy dramatic roles.
Oh, and a shout-out to Joanna Scanlan, who plays another teacher at the school, who tries to befriend Sheba but is frozen out by Barbara. She also appeared briefly in The Other Boleyn Girl as a midwife, but it was such a minor role I didn’t bother mentioning it. Shame on me.