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
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
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
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
"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
"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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