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Sunday 13 November 2016


Film on TV: Notes on a Scandal

Posted in: Movies
By Carol Bartlett - 13th June 2009

If it is acceptable for the lonely teacher Sheba to seek sexual love from a student, can we condemn predatory Barbara's wish to share her love with younger Sheba? Acadamy Award and BAFTA-nominated 2006 British film Notes on a Scandal plays tonight on TV3. Here's our review from its cinema release...

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REVIEW: NOTES ON A SCANDAL
Starring: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy
Dir: Richard Eyre

On seeing the shorts for Notes On a Scandal, I feared a set of negative images of lesbians and caricatured portrayals of lesbian life similar to those of the The Killing of Sister George (made in 1968 and generally acknowledged as the first British "lesbian" film).

Without doubt it is possible to see parallels, especially as both have main characters who are middle-aged lesbians with their desirous eyes set firmly on younger women, but whereas the 1968 film focuses on the inadequacies of June 'George' Buckridge, Notes On a Scandal invites reflection on the nature of loneliness and the appropriateness of spring and autumn relationships. The lesbian nature of Barbara Covett’s (Judi Dench) desire becomes merely one facet of the film’s many dimensions.

Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins the staff as an art teacher at a shabby secondary school in a working class area of London. Sheba, a new teacher, gains support from Head of History, Barbara Covett – a lonely woman who is approaching retirement. A friendship of sorts develops between the women and Sheba begins to use Barbara as a mentor and confidante. One evening Barbara observes Sheba engaged in some extra-curricular activities with a male 15-year-old student. Desperate for companionship and someone to share her life, Barbara uses her knowledge of the awful secret to advance her need for Sheba’s friendship.

Barbara unreliably narrates events of this film through the device of a diary. As we see what is happening, and are told of events by Barbara herself, a kind of dramatic irony evolves where the audience appreciates what Barbara cannot admit, her love for Sheba is self-serving and predatory and doomed to failure and also that the narrator suffers from destructive, psychotic levels of loneliness. The fact that the audience sees this while, at the same time, pitying Barbara is testimony to Dench’s superb performance in this role. Nor did she outshine Blanchett.

As a teacher, I remain horrified by Sheba’s flouting of moral and legal boundaries, a flouting that is explicit in the sexual relationship with her student Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson). Even though it seems that he is the seducer I cannot get beyond the inappropriateness of the sex. However, within the context of the movie, the relationship seems a victimless crime. Steven, sexually attracted to his teacher, is a manipulative liar who uses her as much as she uses him. The sordidness of this is reflected in the locations where they have sex – a classroom and a seedy, litter-strewn alleyway. The difference in their ages and relative positions of power are brought into perspective in an argument that Sheba has with her betrayed husband Richard (Bill Nighy), when the audience learns that he married her when she was 20 and that he was her much older university lecturer. Now, where is our condemnation of Sheba? If we accept that the relationship she has, and had, with her husband (an older man) is loving and moral, why should we question that the relationship she has as an older woman with the young Steven is any less acceptable? And, if it is acceptable for the lonely and frustrated Sheba to seek sexual love from Steven, why should we condemn Barbara’s wish to share her love with Sheba?

This had to be a British film. Can you imagine the casting if this had been made in Hollywood? No woman would look more than 35 and Tom Cruise would play the betrayed husband. I also doubt that American film makers can yet reflect subtly and effectively on human relationships in the way that the older cultures of Europe can.

Even British film has come a long way in the nearly 40 years since The Killing of Sister George, a simple movie where not only the images on the screen were black and white. In Notes on a Scandal we have a far more complex, sophisticated and compelling film with numerous shades of grey. I strongly recommend that you see it.

Carol Bartlett is an openly lesbian senior teacher at a large Auckland state secondary school. Notes on a Scandal plays on TV3 tonight (13 June 2009) at 8:30pm.


Carol Bartlett - 13th June 2009

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