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February 19, 2007

In Notes on a Scandal much the least sympathetic figure is the headmaster, finds David Womersley: Notes on a Scandal - Richard Eyre

Posted by David Womersley

Notes on a Scandal
Directed by Richard Eyre
certificate 15, 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - argues that the real villain of Notes on a Scandal is the headmaster.

Predatoriness is a dominant theme in contemporary western cinema. Its manifestations range from crude, action movies such as the imaginatively-titled Schwarzenneger "shoot-'em-up" Predator, through more thoughtful variations such as the Alien movies (in which predatoriness is interestingly mapped on to the relation between parents and children), and then on into more metaphorical treatments, typically involving transpositions into more domestic keys, such as Fatal Attraction - a film that is supposed to have done more for marital fidelity than any number of sermons. Notes on a Scandal is an impressive addition to this sequence. It is a powerful, sparely-plotted and tautly-filmed dramatisation of emotional vampirism, and the dreadful atmosphere of suffocation it can produce.

Fey, mildly-moneyed, tepidly-bohemian, Sheba arrives in a sink comprehensive as an art teacher. She is, predictably, hopeless at keeping discipline. But battleaxe history teacher Barbara comes to her rescue, and then goes on to befriend her. The two teachers begin to see each other outside school. Barbara is invited to Sheba's house for Sunday lunch. She is, casually, invited to visit them that summer in their house in the Dordogne. But each of them is concealing something from the other.

Sheba is concealing the fact that she has begun a reckless, criminal affair with a fifteen year-old pupil. Barbara is concealing the fact that she has a record of lesbian stalking (this side of her character is simplified and underlined in the film, by comparison with Zoe Heller's novel), and that her obsessive attentions towards another young female teacher at the school drove her to take a job in Stoke-on-Trent (which is I suppose a better measure of how insufferable Barbara's behaviour must have been than the fact that a restraining order was placed on her).

The latent catastrophe is prepared for when Barbara, wondering why Sheba is not occupying the seat she has saved for her at the school pantomime (the miserable poverty of which is brilliantly and economically evoked), goes wandering off to find her new best friend, and sees her having sex with the boy in the art room.

Barbara's initial response is to turn Sheba in, and she summons her to a pub to give her the bad news. But then she realises that there is more advantage to her in keeping the matter quiet: the interpenetration in her motivation here of seeing an opportunity for manipulation, and of self-deception that this further act of concealment might be the stepping-stone to the creation of a real relationship with Sheba, is very well presented.

Gradually Barbara starts to increase her emotional demands, to the exasperation of Sheba's husband and children, who are understandably puzzled by the arrival of this unprepossessing stranger in their lives. The crisis comes when Barbara's cat, Portia, has to be put down. Grieving, she turns to Sheba, who however is just about to go on a family outing. A shouting-match develops on the pavement, as a result of which spurned Barbara decides to take revenge. She feeds a rumour about Sheba and the boy to a fellow-teacher.

Within no time, the secret is out. The boy's parents door-step Sheba, and so her husband learns about his wife's infidelity in the most brutal way. Sheba is sacked, arrested, faces trial. She moves out, and is taken in by Barbara (who lives in a dingy basement flat - a wonderful objective correlative for her character and emotional life). There Sheba finds Barbara's diaries, to which all her plans, emotions and actions have been confided. She storms out, is jailed for ten months, but is reconciled to her husband.

The film ends with Barbara approaching another likely prospect for her attentions on the bench on Primrose Hill which has been a recurrent location of her trysts with Sheba - a premonition of another episode of vampirism to come which is underlined when Barbara points to a dab of cappuccino froth on the nose of her new victim, just as she had earlier done with Sheba. This has now become, for her, almost a routine.

There are strong performances here from Judi Dench as Barbara (widely-praised already in the newspapers), from Cate Blanchett as Sheba (who to my mind has not received her due from the critics), and from Bill Nighy as Sheba's husband. And the film as a whole is enriched and given interest by the way one's sense of who is assuming which role in the paradigmatic plot of predatoriness becomes more complicated (the screenplay is the handiwork of Patrick Marber, who had already explored this territory in the geometrically-plotted and unpleasant Closer).

For instance, who is the victim here? The boy? He seems to get away scot-free - as he tells Sheba, whose life is about to implode, "it was just a bit of fun". Is Sheba the victim? It certainly ends badly for her; but surely Barbara's interest in her is just the mirror-image of her interest in the boy. The film is replete with past or would-be stalkers: Sheba's husband, a university lecturer, took up with Sheba when she was his student: improper exploitation was there at the outset of this marriage. The teacher whom Barbara uses to disseminate the rumour of Sheba's affair had himself approached Barbara for advice as to whether she thought Sheba might be willing to embark on an affair with him.

And this drama of impure motives is set, brilliantly, against the backdrop of the deplorable educational "modernisation" which has been foisted on us over the past ten years. In Notes on a Scandal the really nasty piece of work is the headmaster, a despicable despot whose demands for meaningless subject reports, plans and evaluations we see Barbara heroically resisting.

When our public life has been so corrupted by the initiatives of the discredited party still clinging to power, what bulwarks can we set up to prevent that contamination seeping into our private lives? No wonder Sheba was desperate for, and even felt that somehow she deserved, an interlude of transgression.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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The vulgarity of the "school pantomine" is indeed "brilliantly and economically evoked." The setting is the school's auditorium where the children are grouped on the stage performing a Christmas program. While singing a dissonant and barbaric rap/gospel arrangement of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," the children sway wildly back and forth clapping their hands to the funky rhythm. The camera pans the audience and lingers on the enraptured face of the principal who is vigorously applauding this hideous performance.

Posted by: william mcneill at February 20, 2007 02:42 PM
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