Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is the new art teacher in a British secondary school. An older teacher, almost ready to retire, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) befriends her. Cate invites her into her home to have dinner with her husband, Richard, (Bill Nighy) and their two children, one of whom has Down Syndrome. But Barbara misunderstands Sheba’s friendship – or rather, Sheba doesn’t get Barbara’s overtures.
Barbara wants Sheba all to herself. She turns especially predatory when she catches Sheba making out with a fifteen year-old student, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Barbara demands that Sheba put a stop to the affair and says if she does, she will not report Sheba to the school authorities. Sheba promises but does not stop. The spider-like Barbara spins a web to catch Sheba – for herself. Instead, she loses, only to start again with the next young thing.
Notes on a Scandal is seamlessly directed by Richard Eyre (Iris) who takes us into the depths of loneliness and weakness – visual notes on the human condition. It is based on the novel of the same title by Zoe Heller. The screenplay does not follow the book, it imagines and interprets it brilliantly. The acting by both lead actresses is superb – we would accept nothing less. Sheba is innocent, yet guilty and must face the consequences; Barbara acts out of her obsession with self, disabled. She cannot think of others or the consequences of her own actions, and continues on, trying to fill the void of her life-long loneliness through selfishness. She never learns.
This film felt like reading a fine, short novel, packed with psychological, emotional, and spiritual conflict. What lessons can be learned from such a story? Empathy, the balance between freedom and responsibility, maturity, doing the right thing.