Previous Joints

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Notes on a Scandal: An unenjoyable great film.

“People have always trusted me with their secrets. But who do I trust with mine?” – Barbra Covett.

Watching films should be above else an enjoyable experience. Of course you get those stinker films which have you question whether you could have spent one-and-a-half-hours to three hours of your life doing something meaningful – but the majority of the time I love watching films.

And then I came across Notes on a Scandal – a film so well acted, so well directed and so emotionally impactful but a film which I struggle to call ‘enjoyable’.


Notes on a Scandal is about a new teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett) having an affair with a 15 year old school boy, Sean Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Another more senior teacher, Barbra (Dame Judi Dench) finds out.


This film has haunting similarities with the real life case of Jeremy Forrest. This in itself doesn’t render the film not enjoyable, but the fact that I found the case of Mr Forrest disgusting yet the affair between Sheba and Sean compelling is troubling. It reminded me of my time at school when me and my friends would have given anything to bed a certain teacher.

The set up of an older woman or teacher having an affair with a student is nothing new to film but there is something interesting and fresh about the way Note of a Scandal presents this scenario and all credit has to go to Blanchett and Simpson for selling it. They present their characters' scenario as an almost schoolyard relationship (Yeh, I know. But you know what I mean). You almost, and I mean almost cheer for them, just before you gain your senses and realise what the hell is going on.


The real genius of this film is Dame Judi Dench. What she does in this film is nothing short of spectacular. She plays Barbra Covett, a confrontational, old and difficult school teacher who sees herself as superior to her colleagues and appears to have a heart made out of stone. The way her character is set up in this film it is likely that Richard Eyre (the director) wanted you to hate her but Dame Judi injects so much complexity to Barbra that your heart breaks for her by the end of the film.

Instead of the film being about Sheba and her sordid affair, it becomes a film about Barbra. For some reason that film, for me, presents uneasy questions and becomes very difficult to watch. It becomes a film about loneliness; not being alone as I know it - for a couple of years or so - but being alone for almost an entire lifetime. Imagine having no one to love you back like you love them and, as she says at the beginning, having no one to share your secrets with. 
Another important thing to say about this film is that it is incredibly funny – and that humour is juxtaposed with imagery that shouldn’t be funny. For example, later on in the film Barbra says in her narration, that Sheba doesn’t know what loneliness is, and I paraphrase: "When you haven’t been touched in so long that one brush from a bus conductor sends a twinge to your groin".  That is funny, terribly heartbreaking, but funny nonetheless.  

A lot of her problems come from having too much pride – pride at her status in society (despite being a teacher living in what looks like a dreary London flat) and not wanting to be associated with something she perceives as beneath her, such as being gay. That is the point of Barbra, she comes from a generation where it was not okay to be gay, where it wasn’t widely accepted and so she tries to turn her lesbianism into something akin to a Jane Austen novel (note: I have never read a single Jane Austen novel).
Throughout the whole film she tries to manipulate and trap Sheba into being her ‘lifelong companion’ but it is telling that at the end when all her lies come out in the open she admits that she needs “more than a friend”. The utter desperation of Judi Dench’s character is palpable that by the end of the film you hope she finally finds happiness when she meets another young woman – even though you know that it is likely she won’t.


What you have with Notes on a Scandal is one of the best British films I have ever seen. But I did not enjoy it. I spent too much time grimacing and feeling awfully sorry for a lot of people on this film who I consider to be morally troubling.

What this film left me with is questions about the previous generation of gay people in the UK. What happened to them? Are they living happy lives or are they as lonely as Judi Dench’s Barbra is.