It is two completely dissatisfied lives that make Notes on a Scandal such a satisfying treat. The film alone should be notable for pairing two of the screen’s finest talents, Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in this tale of forbidden fruit and the destructive consequences of temptation.
Patrick Marber (Closer) adapts Zoe Heller’s sensational novel, taking a few cinematic liberties, but it’s a good call: it makes for director Richard Eyre’s (who also worked with Dench on Iris) finest observation yet of human behavior at its ugly worst. Dench is the appropriately named Barbara Covett, the closest thing there is to a modern-day spinster. In her sixties, she teaches high school, and never married or a mother, she comes home to her cat and diary, in which she derides the behavior of all who cross her path. Hers is a lonely, lonely life.
But it proves to be more than that when a new younger teacher named Sheba Hart (as in Bathsheba, the Biblical adulterer, played with real understanding by Blanchett) joins the high school staff. Sheba is rather overwhelmed, and Barbara is quick to come to her aid. It isn’t long before Sheba has brought Barbara into her home, introducing her to two children, a rebellious teenage daughter and a son afflicted with Down’s syndrome, and arrogant husband Richard (Bill Nighy). It is perfectly natural to get excited when making a new friend, to find someone with whom one shares common interests, someone who esteems your own opinions. But that is not exactly what Sheba represents to her new friend. Barbara, with all her cocky contempt for “bourgeois bohemia,” acts as unreliable a narrator in the film as she did in the novel, but the film allows us to see more of the ways in which she deludes herself.
The idea that Barbara might indeed have a homosexual interest in Sheba is more overt here than in the novel. One of Heller’s focal points was that friendship, like any relationship, is a power play, with one member holding more strings over the other. But Barbara doesn’t merely want Sheba’s attention; she is a predator, and truly wants Sheba. When she discovers Sheba breaking the law by having a sexual liaison with underage student Steven Connolly (Andrew Stevens), Barbara starts threatening Sheba, giving her ultimatums so as to get more time from her, and give her her life.
Eyre and Marber devotes the smallest amount of attention in Scandal to Sheba’s criminal act; in her mind, her unfulfilled life has led her to stray, and Steven’s young age only creates some excitement. The psychology behind the criminal element remains unexamined. Yet Blanchett carefully weaves together this woman’s life. Sheba wants to please all, but is desperately afraid of disappointing everyone, and when her affair comes to light, Blanchett finds the appropriate ways for Sheba to come unglued. She is so consumed by her problems, but even though they seem to be minor, are Barbara’s any greater? Barbara’s life is so empty that she must engineer major travesties in the lives of others, like the Hart family. She punishes people for sins they have only committed in her mind. Dench gives another incomparable, finely-tuned, unsympathetic character study. Barbara looks as dowdy and unkempt here as she did refined as M in Casino Royale, and every gesture communicates her world. Her arms folded up against her show how removed she is from the world, and cast-off glances with studious eyes betray not just her hatred of, seemingly, everyone else, but her own self-loathing.
These observations are profound. I do wish Marber had not refashioned certain elements from the novel; the movie never tells us whether Steven reciprocated Sheba’s feelings or if their affair was just for kicks and Barbara’s power play was more focused in the novel. Nonetheless, the lesson learned her is loud and clear. Be careful who you let into your life; they just might try to take it over.