Hot goss. Great accents. More hot goss. Shade. And cringy suspense. It’s a Required Viewing selection that boasts many of our very favorite things and two of the greatest performers working today, Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Annemarie, kick us off. Give us your reaction and your suspicions about why I picked this movie, but mostly your reaction, because I think this has been your favorite watch in recent memory.
A: SO MUCH HOT GOSS. ALL THE ACCENTS. Your quick recap is pretty spot-on. And you’re right, this was one of the more enjoyable watches, despite the cringy stuff. Which we’ll get to.
First of all, this is a British drama. It has grey skies, almost indecipherable accents, Dame Judi & Cate bantering, and lots of muted yet strong emotions. If only it also featured Victoria Sponge then we’d know this was a movie made specifically for Brooke.
In terms of my reactions aside from quite enjoying all of the above, I think this film has a lot in common with the Meryl Streep-led nun drama Doubt — which I’m sure Brooke has seen. Here, we know that the crime being committed is actually happening, but the mood is very similar and the subject matter is also fairly close. And that’s another reason why I think Brooke picked this: prestige watching. Oscar nods abound!
Brooke, how close am I on why you like this movie? Also, what are your thoughts on the comparison to Doubt?
B: Coming out with “Brooke likes a good prestige watch” is a bit like saying “Annemarie likes Disney,” but I’ll allow it because it is very true. I am a sucker for high drama and excellent pacing in a shiny package. Add some amazing talent to the mix to bring it to life and it’s more or less inconceivable that I wouldn’t like this movie. So, 92% for your answer on why I like it. The one element you missed is that Dame Judi shade. I mean, she is SAVAGE. And we love it. I recall more than one declaration from you that you needed to adopt her mannerisms and sick burns, and I’m more okay with that than not, even is Barbara is a pretty damn problematic person herself.
I never would have made the Doubt connection — that one for me is more about institutional corruption while this one is about personal demons, but, I will buy into your theory. There are undeniably similar themes running through both narratives. And that’s not to mention the killer performances from similar one-two punches of legends (Dench and Streep) and rising queens (Amy Adams and Blanchett). I’m a little sad you’ve seen Doubt because I would have loved to make you watch that one, even though Philip Seymour Hoffman breaks my heart to see now.
Okay, we’ve established that this is a great movie and obviously a great pick. Let’s get into what makes it a bit of a shocker. I’m not sure how much you knew about this movie going in, but I am a little disappointed I didn’t position myself to see your reactions (I did hear them though).
A: Yes, yes. At this point in all RV’ing, we know why the pick is made because I think we’re creatures of habit and we like what we like. That’s actually not snark, it’s just a symptom of, maybe, we know each other’s movie preferences too well?
I don’t believe I knew a darn thing about this movie coming into it. I might have heard bits and pieces back when it first came out and was nominated for all the awards, but I deliberately don’t dig into RV selections so I have a pure reaction to it. And react I did!
Let’s call a spade a spade. Cate’s character Sheba is a pedophile. Even if her young lover is almost of age, he’s still very much a child. If the situation were an older male teacher we’d say the same thing, absolutely. But because we’re seeing a very attractive middle-aged woman (or even younger, is she supposed to be 40 here?) sleeping with her student, it’s not presented as if she’s a straight-up criminal. So I understand why the shock value is here because it is quite the scandal.
Now, let’s talk about Dame Judi. You know how we diagnose people based upon our extremely limited doctoring skills? She’s clearly a sociopath or at the very least an opportunistic self-centered person. Barbara is clearly still reeling over the loss of her friend/lover/obsession Jennifer, and while we don’t know the exact nature of their relationship, the word “obsess” still seems pretty applicable. Instead of doing the right thing and turning in Sheba right away when she catches them in the act, Barbara turns the entire proceeding into a circus act intended to break up Sheba from both her husband and her teenage lover. This is a level of scheming that I don’t have time for, but it’s entertaining as hell. But is she a good person? I’d vote no. Very much no.
Ok, Brooke. What other plot elements are vital to parse here? Also, what’s your take on the relative sane-ness of Barbara and Sheba.
B: First, let me just say that I don’t think it’s possible to know each other’s viewing preferences too well, because there are few things I relish more than when you get obsessed with something I pick. And we both know you’ll never let me live down the fact that I refocused the decor of my Christmas tree around LAUREN. CONRAD. ORNAMENTS. I never imagined that world.
Anyway, back to Sheba and Barbara and their sordid affairs. There are a few, admittedly less flashy, plot pinnings that we need to examine here. 1. Sheba and Barbara are both lonely, desperate people. Obviously, Barbara has a history of manipulating extremely close friendships where she wants too much and pushes the objects of her affection away. For her part, Sheba is lost in the throes of a life she never imagined when she started shagging her professor in college. She’s married, a mother, nothing of the glamorous rebel she was once upon a time. And she pines for that, even if she does love her family. Which I think she does, though she doesn’t realize how much until it’s too late. 2. Steven Connolly is absolutely a child and therefore cannot consent to these sex acts, but he too has a manipulative streak. He understands that Sheba wants to save him, so he feeds her the stories that give him a chance with her. That Sheba allows herself to be pursued, to be manipulated in this way is very much her failing, but it’s worth noting for the record that Master Connolly will probably go on to break some hearts, the little scoundrel. 3. I think there’s a lot unsaid in this movie about how Sheba is always a force of desire being yanked between the opposing elements in her life. She says she feels entitled to do what she does with Steven (ewww), but it’s almost as if she’s utterly adrift and requires the motivations of others to act.
However lost she is, I think Sheba’s perfectly sane. She might well be depressed, and she’s obviously not totally fulfilled in her relationship with her husband, but her mistakes feel very human. Barbara on the other hand … as you say, we’re no doctors, but she’s batshit in a clinical way. On the one hand, she has an extremely narcissistic view of the world — “Sheba chose her family over me, so I’ll make her pay for it.” And on the other, she has the calculating wherewithal to use everyone around her to her ends, (i.e. making the other teacher who is pining for Sheba report the affair) which definitely smacks of some sociopathy. So while Sheba’s diagnosis of vampire doesn’t seem quite right, I think she’s well on with her implication that people stay the hell away. That said, I’d love to see more of how Barbara came to be this way.
Discuss, if you please.
A: I appreciate your clinical diagnosis, and I’m leaning toward agreeing that Sheba isn’t crazy, but adrift, perhaps depressed, and definitely bored with a capital “b.” I had forgotten Young Connelly’s lies he told to sleep with Sheba, which is an interesting plot device intended to make it seem less creepy, perhaps?
Oh, Barbara. I did also love her barbs, her wit and her shade, but the entire proceeding is just so terribly sad. I couldn’t help but feel bad for her constant, pervasive loneliness. Who wants to feel that way? And I think it was way more than a simple rejection from Jennifer to make her this way. I think she’s always felt like an outsider, and who could blame her? She clearly comes from an old-school world, one where children are whipped when they misbehave, and certainly not one where a young woman could confess her same-sex feelings to anyone but a private journal. It’s actually pretty heartbreaking even as she’s vindictive and cruel to the people around her. She clearly didn’t have a chance at love from a very young age, and that’s made her the slightly nutty woman she is today.
We see Barbara back at the very end, hitting on another young woman, which perhaps shows that this behavior is a pattern she returns to, always seeking out acceptance and love, but never quite able to achieve it. Like I said, it’s heartbreaking.
Now, if you please, let’s move on to our discussion of “b” characters, specifically Bill Nighy. What role does he have to play in the proceedings and also we agree he makes films more fun just by being in them, yes?
B: Bill Nighy definitely brings an element of joy and fun to most movies, just by being there. In this case, he doesn’t actually get much to do, but he gets a few amusing lines in there, so we can allow that he’s adding some levity here. The interesting thing about Notes on a Scandal is that Barbara’s perspective is so dominant that we don’t get to see Sheba and her family alone. I mean, sure, they do the Sunday afternoon dance party ritual regardless of Barbara’s presence and that seems fun but other than that we mostly see them in entertaining mode or having spectacular rows. I think there’s a measure of paranoia about his character though. He mentions to Barbara on first meeting her that people often mistake him for a father or an uncle instead of Sheba’s husband (he was her professor, after all) and he later suggests that he’s been waiting for things to fall apart, but of course he’d rather that it happened on account of an adult, not a teenaged boy. However insecure he comes off in his marriage, he does seem to be a pretty wonderful father to his kids, so kudos for that.
The other family relationship that grabs attention is that of Sheba and her daughter, Polly (a very young Juno Temple). Polly is right around the age of Master Connelly and has teen boy drama all her own. Of course, that becomes exceedingly awkward when the truth comes out and an exasperated Polly rightly observes “your boyfriend is younger than mine!” I have to think these parallels were a very intentional storytelling device, perhaps to yank us back to the reality that’s what’s going on is gross after we feel like we want to defend Sheba from the cruel way she’s outed and has her world torn apart.
Talk to me about some of the other teachers, AM. We meet a few, and Barbara has a LOT of thoughts, but do we?
A: We did meet a few teachers, but none stick out so much as the fellow who is also sweet on Sheba and who ends up blowing up the situation on account of Barbara’s prodding. I have the feeling, nay the certainty, that Babs thinks very poorly of her colleagues and how they conduct their business. She’s a champion judger. But here’s the thing. She knows they don’t like her and she doesn’t care. Which is actually kind of awesome, and goes in Barbara’s “pro” column. If that we all could give fewer shits.
I also have thoughts on both teachers’ crushes/infatuations with Sheba. Has no one told them how ill advised it is to date someone with whom one works? Bad, BAD idea. (I don’t have experience with a married coworker, but I can tell you from personal history that coworkers dating is almost always bad news.) Clearly Sheba is looking for entertainment in her dull life, but she’s just not making good adult decisions.
Interesting how the film does call attention (way late) to the fact that Sheba is actually a creep. It seems ok with the loving reminiscence of how Sheba fell in love with her young student. Barbara obviously is way less horrified than she should be, and so on. And still, the focus of the film isn’t on Sheba’s crimes. The sole focus is Barbara’s reaction to it all, where the opportunities outweigh the disgust.
Final thoughts? We usually talk costume / scenery, and while I love the Sheba family house, and the school was appropriately Super British, not a lot else stands out.
B: I daresay we’ve quite thoroughly unpacked the hot goss! And everything else, too. This Required Viewing is in the books — but you better believe you and I will be chatting about that coworkers dating aside above.
Next time on Required Viewing we’re going back to the 90s and getting our sneak on with Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier and River Phoenix.