There are not many bigger taboos in society than a teacher entering into an affair with an underage pupil and, for some reason, when it is a female teacher seducing a male pupil even more eyebrows are raised. In Notes on a Scandal
such an illicit romance is explored through the characters of Bohemian art teacher Sheba Hart, played by Cate Blanchett
, and her 15-year-old lover Steven Connolly, portrayed by newcomer Andrew Simpson.
And, under the superb direction of Richard Eyre
, what could be a rather crude exploration of a seductress taking advantage of a vulnerable schoolboy is sensitively portrayed as two people acting on their mutual emotional need for one another and one woman’s eventual physiological crisis.
Sheba’s ability to hide her shameful secret from her older husband (Bill Nighy
) and her young children is threatened when her fellow teacher and supposed friend Barbara Covett, exquisitely portrayed by Dame Judi Dench
, stumble across one forbidden fumble.
Barbara, a lonely spinster with only her cat for company, has become obsessed with new faculty member Sheba, and when she discovers her believed kindred spirit has in turn become obsessed with another, she holds Sheba to ransom and watches as she dances to the beat of her drum.
What follows is an explosive psychological thriller, told through the darkly comic diaries of deceptive Barbara, teetering on a tangled web of lies, deceit and betrayal.
Notes on a Scandal - adapted from Zoë Heller’s best selling novel by Patrick Marber
– boasts a remarkable cast who give some of the best performances of the year.
And critical acclaim for the British drama has not gone unnoticed during their year’s awards season. The film has received four Academy Award nominations
– including Best Actress for Dame Judi and Best Supporting Actress for Cate – and three BAFTA nods.
Here, Cate, Richard and Patrick discuss getting through some of the film’s most intensely dark and explosive scenes and adapting an already hugely successful story to the big screen.
Patrick, you’ve described adapting Notes on a Scandal as being like an act of “benevolent piracy”. How easy was it to adapt?
It was very difficult, I read the book many times and underlined all the things I wanted to use and all the scenes I wanted to keep and ended up using much less than I thought I was going to. You find that after a few drafts the thing takes on a life of its own, and you start to stray from the book. And you find that you end up inventing a lot more than you thought you would.
The tone of it, in the end, is that of an “unreliable memoir”?
I think I stayed true to the darkly comic tone of the novel, or at least I hope I did. The thing that seduced me about the book was the truth of it and the comedy of it and the nastiness of it. And I think that’s all very much in the film. The first thing that Zoe Heller said to me, when we first met to talk about me adapting her novel, was ‘I’m terribly sorry about Sheba’, and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Well I feel that I spent so much time working on Barbara that I didn’t give Sheba enough time and character. So please will you, in the screenplay, do some work on her?’ I said I felt Sheba was very alive in the novel, but I know what she means because the novel is from Barbara’s point of view. I think I made Sheba a more Bohemian, and slightly lonelier figure than she is in the novel. I think in the novel she is scatty and posh and a bit of a flibbertigibbet. Whereas I don’t think she’s scatty and a flibbertigibbet in the film. You tell me Cate, what do you think?
There’s a sort of plaintive quality to her in the novel which could be a bit annoying on screen. And also the film is so much more a literal medium, what you see is what you get, and I think it was important to give Sheba her own voice.
What were the challenges for you Cate, was it simply the emotional and physical demands of the seduction scenes between you and the 15 year old boy?
I’m not interested in playing characters who see the world through my prism, I think the journey of understanding any character is to see how they tick and how they differ from you. Probably the hardest thing was to liberate her from my own morality. I was quite shocked at the tone I took, the judgments I had of the relationship that she embarked on. But it’s the stuff of great drama.
How did you find working with an inexperienced actor, Andrew Simpson, who plays the student Sheba falls for, Steven Connolly?
I think the casting process was really interesting, maybe this is my morality coming in again but it was important to me that the actor was above the age of consent. At the end of shooting he wrote me this handwritten letter that made me want to weep, about what the film had meant to him. It was then that I thought he was so young, you just tend to treat all the actors like normal actors once they’re there. It was a very welcoming environment, and Richard made us very at ease.
What other concerns did you have about those scenes, in a practical sense?
One of the things I like about the film is when her husband, played by Bill Nighy asks, ‘Why?’ and she says, ‘I don’t know’. I think it’s great that the film doesn’t provide you with a neat equation, either moral or psychological. The answer to your question of how we did it is because they’re very grown up about it, for all that Andrew is 16, there wasn’t a coyness or embarrassment. They just approached it as a professional task and the choreography of it was kind of surgical.
It was a complete veneer, I’m glad it was dark because I blushed my way through the whole thing.
Also Cate did something I think is completely brilliant. Infinitely generous she endows this boy, and he’s an attractive boy, but she endows him with a great sexual allure. That is her acting achievement - by making you believe in this passionate obsession that she has she made him seem very sexy. That’s acting genius.
Was there as much concern about the fight scene with Dame Judi Dench?
Both of us were dreading it to be honest, because it’s about finding the pitch of a scene like that. The stakes, and the expression of those stakes are so high, but also it’s absurd, the things that they’re saying to one another. I think what Patrick had written gave the scene a buoyancy which was actually, in the end, quite fun to play. But we did down a bottle of champagne after we’d finished it.
I was very conscious throughout the shoot that Cate and Judi were dreading the day they had to do this scene. It’s monstrously difficult and it’s a scene also where we the audience are watching two mad women, two characters who have been driven almost mad by the events of the story. We watched the scene appalled by where they’ve got to with each other, but that’s the whole point, that’s where the story has gone. It’s the purging scene. And after that when Barbara is clearing up all the rubbish that Sheba has created it’s a very, very quiet scene. And their goodbye scene is sort of a stalemate, they’ve come to the end of something.
It’s an interesting journey really, a fascinating journey to play, someone who’s quite fey and gossamer and coy in the beginning, who then ends up being thrust out of a basement flat, screaming in her pajamas, dressed as Siouxsie and the Banshees, going after the paparazzi. That scene had to get Sheba to the place where that would be a logical, the only place for her to go.
I realized when we were making the film something that never occurred to me when I was writing it. It’s that actually Barbara doesn’t really go on any kind of journey, she just sort of gets an obsession for someone, it doesn’t work out and she’s upset about that but she endures. It’s Sheba who goes on the massive journey and Barbara who is he fixed point. But that only occurred to me when I watched the film, what the true extreme of it is.
Was Notes on a Scandal written with your leading ladies in mind, Patrick?
What happened was when Scott Rudin sent me the book, I think that was the first thing that happened. He said he thought this would be great for Richard to direct, and I said that was great. I read the book and said I’d love to do it, and then there was another conversation where everyone felt that Judi and Cate would be perfect for these roles. They were then sent the book, and word came back that they loved it and would both be interested to read the screenplay. To answer your question I was conscious when I was writing the screenplay that I had these two brilliant actresses waiting to read it so it was a pressure, but a very pleasurable one because I thought I could write at full stretch and hopefully they’d like all these strange contradictions and twists and turns that I was going to give their characters.
Judi Dench has said she has known real people like her character, Barbara – have any of you?
Yes, is the answer. I can think of somebody I knew who used to work at the BBC when I first went to work there in 1978. She was a Barbara, a poor, miserable, lonely woman. She used to drive people away because her loneliness, her solitude was like a powerful smell.
I think Zoë’s book recognizes a peculiar strand of loneliness that’s out there. I think if you look around, if you go out onto the streets, you will see a thousand Barbaras out there. I think that’s why people like the film because I think it’s identified a particular streak of modern loneliness in the comfortable middle classes and the uncomfortable lower middle class of people like Barbara.
By Kate Sole, BANG Showbiz