Notes on a Scandal is one of these movies that two days later is still ricocheting around in my mind. The movie will not let me go. This is not because this movie is Best Picture material. I am sure there are far worthier contenders. In any case, you would not normally associate that kind of film with a movie about an English schoolteacher involved in a scandalous affair with her fifteen-year-old student. While the acting is uniformly very good, there is probably no Oscar winning material in this movie. Nor was this a costly movie produce. It was filmed in Great Britain, mostly in and around an old and decrepit public school with many students from poor backgrounds. The most expensive part of the movie was probably hiring Cate Blanchett to play the licentious woman who allows herself to get involved in this illicit relationship.
The thirty-something Ms. Blanchett is still lithe and attractive, and this movie allows her to stretch her acting limits in a very challenging part. How can anyone identify with a woman on the throes of midlife who would do something as deplorable as having a steamy affair with a creative but emotionally immature 15-year-old student? It is challenging material, to say the least. The material is so sensitive that even though it is not explicit it would likely be deemed too hot to even be shown in some states. No wonder I had to go to an art house theater in order to see it. I found it at the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia.
Cate Blanchett, as Sheba Hart, is very convincing in the role of an art teacher with powerful unresolved feelings. She has a much older husband, a fritterish teenage daughter and a son with Down’s Syndrome. Mrs. Hart did not quite draw the cards from life that she expected. She justifies her illicit affair as a way to get the attention largely absent in her pedestrian life in a British row house. Barbara Covett (Judi Dent), an older teacher at the school whom she befriends, chronicles their relationship in her diary. Ms. Covett is a battle weary, sixty or seventy something year old history teacher who has her job (which each year makes her more and more cynical), her beloved cat and little else.
At first, it is hard not to feel empathy for this neglected shrew of a woman. It is difficult to go through life as a spinster and to be seen as old, ugly and baggage by the rest of society. She has no delusions about her place in society and leads a very lonely life. She tirelessly chronicles her sad little life in a very personal diary, that also demonstrates that she is also very savvy analyzer of human nature. Once Sheba Hart comes into her life, her diary quickly becomes consumed by their friendship. It is when she discovers Sheba’s illicit affair that things really get interesting.
I will not say too much more or I will give away too much of the plot. I can say that by the end of the movie, I found Barbara Covett to be a far more interesting and complex character than the attractive schoolteacher Sheba Hart. For Barbara has one talent left in her sad little life: that of a dysfunctional Mary Worth. She can spot a troubled woman in her circle and wrap her life into theirs under the guise of being a friend and helper. She plays the Mother Confessor role with Sheba, who pours out all sorts of intimacies about her past. This weaves them together in a rather convoluted and ultimately toxic relationship.
What ricochets around my brain two days later though is not Sheba Hart’s violation of trust with a hormonally charged fifteen-year-old boy. Rather, Sheba becomes the conduit for a much more fascinating character exposition of Barbara Covett. In my mind, psychoanalyzing Barbara is what this story is really about. If your experience is like mine, you will end the movie feeling both aghast and sympathetic toward Barbara, a woman who is so lonely the highlight of her weekend is going to the Laundromat. The movie then becomes a study in the potential effects of long-term loneliness. It shows how it can perturb someone who would otherwise have turned into a normal person. Barbara Covett on the surface appears normal, but it soon becomes clear that she has very deep emotional scars. Consequently, the real kudos in the movie belongs not to Cate Blanchett, who is really a fine supporting actress in this movie, but to Judi Dent. She takes us into a new and largely unexplored world of the spinster women among us in society. Barbara Covett is one of these women who desperately craves intimacy but cannot find an appropriate way to receive it. She seems driven to grotesquely perturb any slim intimacy she can bring into her hollow life.
To me the success in a movie has never been about how much money was spent on it, or who is in it. If a movie takes me into new unexplored emotional terrain, I may loathe it on some level, but at the same time, I will appreciate it. Hence, I appreciated Notes on a Scandal. That I am still processing it means it succeeded on an important level. Despite its mature subject matter, it probably is worth your time to see too. It is both very realistic and eerily plausible. While Cate Blanchett’s acting is superb, it is Judi Dent who deserves the most applause for her outstanding caricature that brings us into the mind of a sanguine but battered old woman on the precipice of hell. Any fine actress of a certain age would kill for this role.
You might want to make a note to go see it too.