The movie adaptation of Zoe Heller's book is a success. The scandal of the title is an affair between a female art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett), and a 15 year old student, Steven. Sheba is from a wealthy family, but she was a rebel as a youth; then she got married to an older man (Bill Nighy) and had a couple of children, one of them with Down syndrome. Now in her late 30s, her life had become dominated by her life as a wife and mother. So she became a teacher, in an effort to claim an identity outside of the home. Unfortunately this does not work: she has difficulty maintaining order in the classroom, and she feels like a failure. So when Steven comes on to her, she initially resists and then succumbs.
It is Sheba's colleague Barbara (Judi Dench) who is at the center of the story however. In the novel, she is the narrator, and she is an unreliable one. In the movie, Barbara give some voice-over, so we see the story partly from her perspective. It soon becomes clear that she is self-deceived, driven by her own misery and need for company. She seems especially alienated from her own sexuality: she is attracted to younger women, but she cannot admit this to herself. Barbara is witheringly acerbic in her judgments about others, but she has nothing in her own life that she can take pride in. She is also extremely manipulative, and she manages to coerce Sheba into a friendship. It becomes clear that her ultimate goal is to win Sheba away from her husband and to get Sheba to move in with her.
The performances by Dench and Blanchett are superb, and the rests of the cast is strong. Dench manages to convey Barbara's twisted inner nature with small gestures, to chilling effect. The DVD has a commentary by director Eyre which is somewhat interesting, although he does a little too much concurrent explaining what is happening as we see it happen, when it would be more informative to hear about his directorial thinking and choices. There are a few additional extras on the DVD which are basically promotional material.
Notes on a Scandal addresses difficult issues, but with some delicacy. It is at its best in its portrayal of the complexities of relationships and the frailties that lead people to do terrible things.
Link: Review of What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.