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Scandalous Liaisons 

“Did we leave the oven on?” Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) and Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) wonder simultaneously.
Notes on a Scandal
Dir. Richard Eyre; writ. Patrick Marber, based on a novel by Zoe Heller; feat. Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson (R)
The London in which Notes on a Scandal is set is particularly dreary, as if painted in a permanent coat of drab. By the time (late in the film) Barbara Covett (Dench) claims she sees spectacular sunsets from her favorite park bench, her credibility has already crumbled. Barbara is the unreliable narrator of a Booker-shortlisted novel by Zoe Heller from which Patrick Marber adapted his screenplay.

However, since films are not narrated in the same fashion as novels, the viewer is not imprisoned within Barbara’s warped mind. Instead, we appreciate how out of touch this embittered crone (a colleague calls her “nothing but waste and disappointment”) is while listening to her running — no, stalking — commentary.

It’s the beginning of a new term at St. George’s, the working-class high school where Barbara has taught history for 30 years, and which she characterizes as “below the national average but above the level of catastrophe.” Convinced that “teaching is crowd control” and that “children are feral,” she functions as a disciplinarian to restrain the boisterous impulses of her unrefined students.

When a gorgeous novice teacher, Sheba Hart (Blanchett), enters the building, students and fellow teachers are smitten by the art instructor’s seemingly artless charm. Barbara calls her “fey.” A lonely, needy woman, Barbara Covett covets the vibrant, privileged life she ascribes to the newcomer, and she soon attaches herself to her, eager to win the heart of Sheba Hart.

Part of the attraction is class envy. “They do things differently in bourgeois bohemia,” notes Barbara, a shriveled citizen of the lower-middle class, awed by Sheba’s ease in gesture and conversation. Graced with personal magnetism and coddled by fortune, Sheba presumes the interest and sympathy of others, and she soon makes Barbara a confidante to private revelations and a regular guest in the suavely disheveled house she shares with her husband (Nighy), a bratty teenage daughter, and a son with Down syndrome.

After Barbara catches her in a classroom in flagrante delicto with a student, Sheba confesses to a sexual affair with 15-year-old Steven Connolly (Simpson). Sheba explains her pedophilic adultery as an escape from domestic duties as wife and mother. Besides, the gap between her age and Steven’s is about the same as the one between hers and her writer husband Richard’s when he left his wife and children to marry her.

In love with Sheba herself, Barbara feels betrayed by her furtive, shabby romance with a mere student. But she writes in her diary: “There was a magnificent opportunity here.” Keeping this dreadful, incriminating secret brings her closer to Sheba and gives her power over her. Most of Notes on a Scandal focuses on Barbara’s attempts to use her knowledge to gain control of Sheba, meanwhile Sheba finds herself unable to break it off with Steven, a boy whose working-class exoticism, flattering attentions, and adolescent tumescence she cannot resist. Barbara deludes herself into believing a special intimacy with Sheba. “Sheba and I share the ability to see through the quotidian awfulness of things,” she writes. But this glowering British vulture is incapable of seeing her own special awfulness. Her benighted notes on the scandal are themselves as much of a scandal as the liaison between a married teacher and her 15-year-old student.

Notes on a Scandal shares with Fatal Attraction an unreciprocated amorous obsession. It shares with The History Boys a scrubby English school where subtle lessons about class and sex are taught. “Our lives are acutely similar in so many respects,” says Barbara about Sheba, absurdly oblivious to the differences that generate the drama. A closeted, predatory lesbian whose sinister familiar is a pussycat. A pampered beauty finding thrills in a forbidden fling. A horny teenager rising to the challenge of seducing a respected adult. Each of the sides of this romantic triangle is a stereotype, but what allows the geometry of Notes on a Scandal to work is the dexterity of the performers, Dench, Blanchett, and Simpson, who make their characters credible and earn our empathy. They make success of scandal.

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