When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) arrives to fill the position of art teacher at a public school in London she sends ripples through the institution and its inhabitants (both students and teachers alike). Her attractiveness, which is strangely enhanced by her first day jitters and her anxiousness about the new job, casts a spell on everyone. Well, almost everyone. At first, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), a teacher who can only be described as a battle axe, dismisses Sheba as a waif but when she is forced to help the new art teacher settle an altercation between two students she too falls under Sheba’s spell.
When Barbara discovers Sheba has been sleeping with one of her students (Andrew Simpson), however, their blossoming friendship is thrown into complete disarray. As Barbara threatens to make Sheba’s dark secret public, shattering – what on the surface – appears to be a perfect existence, her own dark side and jealous desires are also exposed.
I watched the first thirty minutes of Notes on a Scandal in morbid fascination. The intimate relationship between an older woman and an underage boy wasn’t exactly something I looked forward to seeing. The press surrounding the film had built this aspect up to almost epic proportions and going into the screening I expected a tragic tale of love between student and teacher. Not so.
Notes on a Scandal uses this illicit/illegal relationship merely as a catalyst to drive the narrative surrounding the friendship between Barbara and Sheba. It helps to expose a loneliness that consumes both women, one that drives both to do terrible things.
What I enjoyed most about this film was the embodiment of this feeling in each woman. Sheba acts out of an impulse of entitlement. Her family life (the specifics of which I won’t go into) has, she feels, held her back and now it’s her time to experience freedom. There is a naivety surrounding her actions that can never justify what she has done but it does make her more appealing when compared with Barbara.
Barbara Covett’s actions are guided by the knowledge that she will never be loved for what she is – an aging repressed lesbian complete with a cat. She, therefore, must do everything in her power to hold onto the possibility of love when it does appear, even if it means doing the most terrible things. It’s another in the long tradition of the ‘psycho’ gay character, but it’s implicit here that her self-repression is behind her actions – not her sexuality.
Notes on a Scandal made me think of Black Widow (1987), starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell, a film about a woman who marries wealthy men for their money and then murders them. That association may seem strange, I will be the first to admit that both films are extremely different, but the former – while not as stylised or glamorised – is a taut psychological thriller in the same vein.
There isn’t much I can say about the performances of Notes on a Scandal’s stars that you haven’t already heard or know. Both Blanchett and Dench are superb. Blanchett handles her physical scenes with newcomer Simpson in a manner that sustains the seriousness of the matter throughout the film and, as a result, it never becomes tacky or unbelievable as it so easily could have.
The main reason Dench’s performance is so compelling is because she plays a character that is the complete antithesis of the roles she normally acts in. Having played queens and various dignitaries it is a breath of fresh air to see her in the gutter. It makes for a welcome change. Many believe that Dench – who was a 2007 nominee for actress in a leading role – should have taken the Oscar for this performance, instead of Helen Mirren’s turn in The Queen.
Notes on a Scandal is an uncomfortable watch that I found completely engrossing. It’s a fascinating examination into what some will do in order to not be lonely and the lengths they will go to in order to hold onto companionship once they have found it. It is a terrific but disturbing watch.