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NOTES ON A SCANDAL - THE SCANDAL MAKER

The flawed characters and the intensity of their emotions makes Notes on a Scandal gripping – and the performances of the stars are riveting, not least Australia’s Cate Blanchett, who plays Sheba Hart. "It's been the hardest journey of connection I've ever had with a character," says Blanchett. An Insider Briefing.

This is the story: when Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) arrives as the new art teacher at a London school, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) takes an interest in her, believing she would make an ideal friend and confidante in the lonely tail end of her life – shared only by her cat, Portia. Her assessment of Sheba is shaken when she discovers a surprising indiscretion involving a 15 year old pupil (Andrew Simpson), but as Barbara writes in her diary, this secret could help bind Sheba to her, and perhaps lessen Sheba’s dependence on her husband, an older man (Bill Nighy) and two early teenage children. However, Sheba doesn’t seem to reciprocate the intensity of Barbara’s feelings, and continues her ill-fated dalliance with the pupil, leading to a destructive fallout for all concerned.

While Barbara Covett secretly hopes for a life-long friendship with Sheba Hart, Sheba unwittingly seals the deal by following her own precarious desires - betraying her loving, older husband and family by diving headlong into an affair with one of her own teenaged students. With Sheba's scandalous behaviour and her frantic need to keep it a secret, Barbara gains the upper hand - or so she thinks. The delicate nature of Sheba's encounters with both Barbara and the schoolboy Steven called for an actress of consummate skill, hence the pairing of Judi Dench with Cate Blanchett.

"she's really raw in a way that I think will shock people"

Patrick Marber had always envisioned Cate Blanchett as Sheba. "When I was writing the screenplay, I became even more certain that she had to play Sheba," says Marber. Friends for many years, he knew she would be perfect for the role. "I know Cate socially and we're pals, but I've never worked with her before. And I couldn't be more thrilled with her performance. I think she's really raw in a way that I think will shock people."

Author Zoe Heller found Blanchett's casting eerily close to what she had always imagined Sheba to be like as a person. "Cate is as damn near an incarnation of what I had in my head as you could get," she says. "So it was like having a dream and then seeing it acted out before you." From her first encounter with Heller's book, Blanchett herself was compelled. "It's an absolute page-turner," she says. "It's all told from Barbara's perspective so the challenge for Patrick Marber as the screenwriter and for me as an actor was to liberate Sheba from Barbara's point of view for the film, to make her live and breathe in her own right. Ultimately, on the screen, I think the two women hold up a mirror to one another."

"Marber actually turned and adapted the novel into its own creature, which is often I think the trick to making an adaptation work," says Blanchett. "I've been involved in several adaptations where they've almost been too slavish to the form that the novel has taken and you really need to liberate yourself from that in order to make the film live and breathe in its own right."

Blanchett was excited to get a chance to explore Sheba from several angles, none of them easy or simple. "Cinematically, I think to spend time with someone who transgresses a moral boundary like Sheba does, you have to go deep inside who that woman is," she explains. "There are a number of things in the novel that really struck me and I hope I've brought them to the film. Sheba's a young woman who has married an older man, who feels she has sort of whittled away her youth and has found herself feeling hopelessly without accomplishment or any sense of larger meaning. She's ready to change her life and, in a strange way, her opening act of rebellion is this relationship with a 15 year-old boy. You could say she's trying to recapture her lost youth. It seems she's unable to function in the grown-up world and part of her journey is accepting that she is a product of her own choices."

The irony of Sheba, Blanchett says, is that Barbara enviously believes her to be entirely privileged and happy. "From Barbara's perspective, Sheba has the gift of being in a loving marriage and being surrounded by people who adore her - but Sheba feels just as profoundly deeply lost and isolated.” Yet for all her understanding of how Sheba ends up in her scandal-ridden position, Blanchett still found it a serious challenge to embody the character's unlawful desires. "It's really been the hardest journey of connection I've ever had with a character," she admits, "because I could understand having a relationship with a much older man but I look at a 15 year-old boy and all I see is a child. But I think Sheba herself is surprised by it. She's not someone who has targeted a child. Rather, I think she would say in the beginning that this is a great love - but part of her journey is to be boldly and frighteningly revealing to her inner self."

"a collision course with radical change"

Indeed, Blanchett believes that Sheba was already on a collision course with radical change in her life even before Barbara began playing her dangerous games. "I feel if Sheba had ended the affair when she told Barbara she had, she would still have done something else to upset her life," says Blanchett. "People who are hidden from themselves will create all kinds of circumstances to expose themselves. I think Sheba gives herself an intellectual excuse for the attraction. She idealizes the notion of taking a working class boy and introducing him to art and life. But, of course, in the end, attraction to another person is a deeply subconscious thing that can't be simply explained."

Published February 15, 2007
 

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