"Scandal" revolves mainly around Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), an old and traditional teacher who keeps a diary that chronicles her lonely existence. She befriends a new, young art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) and sees their friendship lasting forever. When Barbara finds Sheba is having an affair with a young student, she takes the opportunity to manipulate Sheba for her own gain. Things begin to grow tense and uncomfortable for Sheba and her family, as the secret between them becomes more and more lethal.
From the very beginning of the movie, we are drawn into Barbara Covett's psyche. She is a lonely woman, an extremely disturbed one, who seems to care nothing about people. It's implied that she is a lesbian, but it's never really clear if it's an emotional or physical lust that she has for Sheba. Either way, Dench wraps us in from the beginning and never lets us go, relentlessly toying with us. We hate her one minute, pity her the next - it's vicious, in the best of ways.
Cate Blanchett, in one of her most polarizing performances, I find absolutely brilliant. She displays the declining life of Sheba Hart so perfectly. Even when Sheba is making terrible decisions that we know are wrong we cannot help but root for her. The last scene between her and Dench, which many call too over the top, I find absolutely perfect. It's heart wrenching, terrifying, and ultimately saddening. Blanchett has been criticized for her histrionics but I find them justified...I really cannot imagine any better way to have done those scenes
Philip Glass's music just seals the deal on the tense atmosphere this film creates. It's frightening, scary, and just overbearing enough to make us feel uncomfortable. The writer and the director seem to know exactly what they want, and it's rewarding for the audience. The film is working as a thriller, a character study, and an acting showcase (for at least Dench and Blanchett) all at once, so well.
However, the movie is far from perfect. It's not a happy film but even so it sometimes feels overly manipulative. Also, some of the supporting cast was kind of weak. I just did not like the kid who played Sheba's young lover at all. I felt he was a bit boring and I cannot see why he was desirable to Sheba whatsoever. Also, you want over the top? The guy who played the principal in that scene with Dench. He was obviously having a lot of fun yelling all of his lines.
Nonetheless, though the movie isn't perfect, it's still quite fantastic and works so well on so many levels. Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett both give performances that I believe are possibly the best in their careers, the writing and music are tense, and it's all crafted quite marvelously. It's a horrifying movie that ultimately ends up being extremely sad.