I can see why others are beguiled by her. I wonder if she possesses the requisite heft.
—Barbara (Judi Dench)
Part melodrama and part dark comedy, Notes on a Scandal is full of sly wit. Framed by the perspective of public school history teacher Barbara (Judi Dench), the movie follows her evolving infatuation with a new, younger colleague, art teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett). At first, the significantly named Barbara Covett delights in what she calls their “mutual ability to see through the quotidian awfulness of things.” But Barbara, determined to shape the world as she sees it, also comes to imagine a romance, which she confesses to her diary and then tries to manipulate in her relationship with Sheba.
The film, based on Zoe Heller’s novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, begins by setting up Barbara’s limited view, which will become yours. “People have always trusted me with their secrets,” she says in voiceover, as the scene cuts from her lonely figure on a park bench to her diary page. “But who do I trust with mine? You, only you.” Her stern tone, her choice language, her utter contempt for all she sees: Barbara is, in a word, delightful. And a little creepy too, which makes her all the more delightful.
The school year begins as Barbara glowers from a second floor window, deeming the yard full of students “the local pubescent proles, the future lumbers and shop assistants and doubtless the odd terrorist too.” Weary of her job, intolerant of the slowness surrounding her, Barbara maintains her distance. “In the old days,” she says, “we confiscated cigarettes and wank mags. Now, it’s knives and crack cocaine, and they call it ‘progress.’” Accompanied by a Philip Glass score that rolls along without building to a climax, Dench is enthralling and forbidding here, framed in the window pane from below. The camera cuts to what she’s looking at but doesn’t quite see yet, as if anticipating her focus: Sheba bicycles among the uniformed students, barely a sign of the complications about to ensue.
Watching Sheba later, amid the rabble during a recess period (Barbara terms the boys “little towers of testosterone”) she disapproves of the newbie’s “tweedy tramp coat” and initially judges her “a fey person” (“It’s hard to read the wispy novice. Is she a sphinx or simply stupid?”). When they do make a brief connection and Sheba invites Barbara home for lunch (“Lasagna irritates my bowels; I’ll ask for a small portion”), the older woman is shocked to discover the younger’s “bourgeois bohemian” existence. She most surely dislikes the whole family concept, here made acute in its particulars: a much older husband, Richard (terrific Bill Nighy), a pouty pubescent stepdaughter named Polly (Juno Temple) and Ben, her charming son with Down’s Syndrome (Max Lewis). But as she observes their strange rituals, smoking cigarettes, playing cricket, and dancing in the living room after lunch, Barbara is also moved. She, of course, can’t articulate her feeling except as disdain, and so, she does: “A rogue image swam through me: hubby’s pruny old mouth pursed at Sheba’s breast.”
Barbara returns home to her cat (“standard issue for all spinsters”), where she addresses her diary with a sense of rapture: “A gold star day!” she exults, the camera tight on the sticker she’s placed on the page. She shall have her [precious Sheba, she knows she will. And then the storyline she’s imagining changes abruptly. Barbara learns of Sheba’s affair with handsome, exceptionally “fit,” and “special needs” student Steven (Andrew Simpson). He is, as several observers note, 15 years old, as in, “Of course he’s innocent, he’s 15.” Except that, the film makes him peculiarly cunning, as Barbara might see him in scenes she does not actually see: he works his way into Sheba’s neediness, seemingly skillfully.
Though Sheba knows she’s doing wrong, she confesses to Barbara—who is interrogating her very severely, threatening exposure—that she’s been seduced by the boy’s pursuit of her. Exhausted by the demands built into her life at home and at school, Sheba tells Barbara that she feels “entitled” to do a little “wrong,” because she’s always done right. And with that, Barbara sees their perfect match. “There was a magnificent opportunity here,” she notes, “With stealth, I might secure the prize long-term.”
Barbara demands that Sheba give up the boy in return for her silence. (“Her fetish for the boy was simply her snobbery manifested,” sniffs Barbara to herself/you. “He’s working class and he likes art, as if he were a monkey who strolled in from the forest and asked for a gin and tonic.”) Thus establishing their “magnificent complicity,” Barbara connives for further entanglements, not foreseeing that Sheba’s promises don’t mean quite what she says. As Sheba is so self-absorbed, she doesn’t notice Barbara’s needs, accepting her offers of help and counseling at face value, as if Barbara is just a good friend who asks for nothing in return for her attentions.
You know this is not the case, as Barbara tells you as much. And so you wait for shoes to drop. Her observations are both prickly and entertaining, as they reveal her own inclinations even when she thinks she’s maintaining her distance: the great trick of the film is that, no matter how badly Barbara behaves—and she does scheme with some venom—she remains “sympathetic,” in the sense that she’s utterly compelling (again, a function of Dench’s performance), as well as strangely endearing and quite blind to herself. And so the film enlists you in the plotting, as you can see what Barbara doesn’t quite, as much as you see what Sheba cannot.
Sheba has some oblique sense of her limits (and you might imagine an entirely other movie, had she been writing the diary). As she “confesses” to Barbara, she recalls something her father told her, “on the tube, mind the gap.” When Barbara looks quizzical, she explains, “The distance between life as you dream it and life as it is.” The gap is everywhere in Notes on a Scandal, as Barbara and Sheba and Steven and Richard as well all see what they need to see rather than what might exist. “They always let you down in the end,” declares Barbara, angry at herself for believing, but more angry at Sheba for being such a very regular member of the odious “they,” after all.
As the film swirls itself into a frenzy of headlines condemning the “sex teacher” and scandalous retributions, Barbara remains keenly fixed on herself (feeling righteously infuriated by the a comments flung by one of the journalists swarmed outside her door, as she keeps Sheba inside, as if to protect her: “The crone returneth!”). As much as Barbara judges, however, you may find yourself in a quandary, not judging so much as taking pleasure in her vile, brilliant perfection.