Machiavellian lessons

Submitted by cathy n on 16 March, 2007 - 2:21

Sofie Buckland reviews Notes on a Scandal

From the moment the film opens with Judi Dench’s acerbic commentary on school life, you know there’s something not quite right about her character, Barbara Covett.

A lonely, obsessional teacher facing the prospect of a long, empty retirement, her diary entries form the soundtrack to the film, relaying to the audience the conscious way she manipulates those she perceives as vulnerable. Her latest target is Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the inexperienced new art teacher about to embark upon an affair with a 15 year old pupil. Next follows two hours of fantastically acted interplay between the lead actors, Bill Nighy as Blanchett’s much older husband and Andrew Simpson as her working-class Irish schoolboy lover.

Perhaps it’s just the socialist in me, but despite all her Machiavellian manipulations of other people’s lives and downright bitchy dialogue, I found myself cheering for Dench’s character to win. She’s acutely aware of the class divide between herself and Sheba, a fact brilliantly underscored by the contrasting portrayals of their respective homes we are invited into Sheba’s life in “bourgeois bohemia”, filled with warm lighting, and then get seemingly endless shots of the dark basement entrance to Barbara’s house.

Barbara comments on the affair wittily, claiming “Her fetish for the boy was simply her snobbery manifested. ‘He’s Working Class and he likes Art’. As if he were a monkey who’d just strolled out of the rain forest and asked for a gin and tonic.” Barbara is not exactly a tub-thumping advocate for the class herself though, describing her pupils as future shop assistants and “perhaps the odd terrorist”.

Sheba is barely likable in the film, pouring her heart out to Barbara about her lack of fulfilment in the gorgeous surroundings of her studio, built for her by her adoring husband after he left his first wife and children for her.

As Dench’s character learns of the affair and begins to manipulate her into an ever closer and more claustrophobic friendship, you can’t help but think Sheba brought it on herself (though the scandal itself doesn’t seem so shocking in the face of Simpson’s brilliantly acted portrayal of a sexually confident school boy doing all the pursuing).

Underneath the excellent acting, tight direction and tense scenes, there’s a sense that this is just a classic pulp novel dressed up as an arty thriller. Zoe Heller’s novel on which the film is based used the diary entry device all the way through, revealing the affair on page three and making the central focus the slow piece-by-piece revelation that the narrator is unreliable and mentally unstable. Take that away, and you’re left with a set of reasonably stereotypical pulp fiction characters — the closeted older lesbian playing the evil crone, driven mad by her loneliness; the willowy and slightly airheaded blonde victim; the strong supportive husband who never puts a foot wrong.
If it wasn’t for the fact Barbara doesn’t meet the requisite unpleasant end, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking that this film is based on those 1950’s lock-up-your-daughters exploitation flicks which warned of the horrors of lesbianism.

Massively enjoyable despite this, and almost certain to pick up an Oscar or two (both of the lead actors have been nominated), I found myself suspending political awareness as I watched because it’s just so tense. It’s hard to shape a coherent political analysis when your nails are digging into your palms.

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