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Film / Notes on a Scandal

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"We are bound by the secrets we share."

"She's the one I have waited for."
Barbara Covett

Notes on a Scandal is an intelligent and thought-provoking Yandere/Stalker with a Crush movie, released in 2006 by Fox Searchlight Pictures, written by Patrick Marber and directed by Richard Eyre.

Based on Zoë Heller's bestselling book Notes on a Scandal (released What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal in the United States), it tells the story of beautiful but lonely art teacher Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett) who begins an affair with a 15-year-old student. However, Sheba's closest friend and confidante, a history teacher and lonely spinster named Barbara Covett (played by Dame Judi Dench) is secretly in love with Sheba and uses her knowledge of the affair to ruthlessly manipulate her. Only Barbara's meticulously kept diary contains the truth of her manipulations. The film also stars Bill Nighy as Sheba's much older husband and Juno Temple as her daughter.

Tropes observed in the movie:

  • Abusive Parents: Wow, Sheba's mother is really not the warm, maternal type. It's perhaps no wonder that she has grown up to be more than a little screwed up emotionally.
    "Bathsheba's a loner, I'm afraid. She's beautiful, thank God, and it's got her through. But it's not quite the same as possessing substance."
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Connolly is described in the book as being rather plain, with a slightly hooked nose. In the movie, that's not exactly the case.
  • Adaptational Karma: In the book, Barbara's plan worked and she got Sheba all to herself, with no end in sight and Sheba's completely emotionally broken. In the film, Sheba finds out about Barbara's behaviour, gives her a blistering "Reason You Suck" Speech, and leaves her alone.
  • Beauty Inversion: Handsome, elegant Judi Dench as haggard spinster Barbara.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: The headmaster not-so-subtly threatens to reveal Barbara's history with Jennifer Dodd if she doesn't retire immediately.
    Headmaster: Now, we wouldn't want all this to come out now, would we? A lifetime of dedicated service ending in shame and humiliation?(Beat) Your choice, Barbara.
  • Brief Accent Imitation: When Barbara wants Steven Connolly to explain the fight with Davis:
    Barbara: One minute you’re an inert lump, the next you’re trying to castrate a fellow pupil. Nothing occurred between these two states?
    Connolly (Irish): No, Miss.
    Barbara (cod Irish): Don’t be a hero, Connolly, it’s hardly da place.
  • Brutal Honesty: Barbara doles this out to Sheba upon finding out about her affair with Steven and when she finds out that Sheba has not ended it as she promised, citing the illegality and foolishness of her actions. Sheba gets her back good at the end, telling her how everyone at school hated her, etc.
  • Butt-Monkey: Sheba, until she snaps.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl:
    • Jennifer Dodd felt the need to file a restraining order against Barbara, who sent her fiance a funeral wreath. Additionally, Barbara acts quite jealous of anyone Sheba interacts with — from their very first lunch date, she's ticked off when Sheba invites a fellow teacher to join them.
    • Sheba in the book. Her behavior during her fling with Steven is more akin to a girl his age than that of a grown woman — writing him love letters, calling him frequently, etc.
  • Comically Missing the Point: A dark version. When Sheba rants at Barbara for the trouble she's caused by revealing her affair with Steven, saying that she could get two years in prison. Barbara blithely and cheerfully declares, "They'll fly by! I'll visit you every week! We have so much life to live together!" It's lines like these that reveal just how delusional she is.
  • Country Matters:
    Steven: (over the phone, to Sheba, or rather Barbara, who's picked it up): "Where are you? I've been dreaming about your hot, sweet cunt all morning."
  • Crapsack World: The film depicts a bleak and depressing image of London, the school where Barbara and Sheba work is shown to be a vile place and most characters in the film are miserable and feel unfulfilled.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Barbara comes out with some gems. "Here come the local pubescent proles, the future plumbers and shop assistants and doubtless the odd terrorist too. In the old days we confiscated cigarettes and wank mags, now it's knives and crack cocaine. And they call it progress."
  • Desperately Craves Affection /Love Hungry: Barbara, to the point that she ruins all her friendships by becoming unbearably smothering and clingy. It's starkly demonstrated in the scene where she tells Sheba "I need more than a friend " and it's obvious that she doesn't necessarily mean in a romantic/sexual sense, but someone who's completely and utterly devoted to only her.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The novel is presented as a manuscript for a book Barbara intends to write on the affair. It also contains pieces of Barbara's diary.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Barbara reveals Sheba's affair with Steven as revenge for Sheba not being there for her when her cat dies. (It should be noted that in the book, Sheba's motive is far more selfish than in the movie—she opts to have a rendezvous with Steven—making Barbara's actions more understandable).
  • The Dog Bites Back: Sheba's Unstoppable Rage at the movie's denouement.
  • Downer Ending: Both versions. The book ends with Sheba trapped in a relationship with Barbara, with them both having lost everything and having no one to turn to but each other. The movie ends with Sheba going to jail and her marriage and relationship with her children likely forever damaged. Barbara escapes any punishment for her actions, but is left alone once again, though the film concludes with her zeroing in on a new victim.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male:
    • Averted by the character reactions we see. Barbara is outraged and disgusted when she finds out about Sheba and Steven, Steven's mother goes Mama Bear on Sheba, Sheba's husband is furious and so are her children. Sheba is the only person feebly trying to convince herself that she hasn't really done anything wrong.
    • That said it's downplayed in another example, as she still receives a much lighter prison sentence than one can imagine a male offender would have, as well as forgiveness from her husband.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Sheba blasts Barbara for revealing her secret, resulting in her arrest, completely overlooking that she chose to have an affair with her underage student.
  • Driven to Suicide: Barbara eyes a box of paracetamol, indicating that she's contemplating this.
  • Ephebophile: Sheba, given her attraction to the 15-year-old Steven. Of course, given her marriage, it seems that her general standards on age gaps and proper boundaries are confused, and that this may be more a factor than specifically seeking teenage partners.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Barbara is understandably repulsed by Sheba's affair with a teenager and blasts her for her stupid actions.
  • Female Gaze: The camera pans past Sheba's cleavage as Barbara reaches out to take hold of her hands. Later, as Sheba sleeps on the couch in Barbara's apartment, the shot roves over her shapely form.
  • Foreshadowing: In the film, when Sheba asks Stephen about his parents, he says he thinks his mother will get through just fine. The first Sheba's husband learns of the affair is when Stephen's mother attacks her.
  • For the Evulz: One possible interpretation of why Barbara exposes Sheba's secret.
  • The Ghost: Jennifer Dodd is mentioned often, but never seen except for a brief glimpse of a photo.
  • Hairtrigger Temper: The Headmaster.
  • He Is Not My Boyfriend: Said word for word by Sheba in feeble protest of her disgusted daughter's accusations, "You slept with a child! Your boyfriend is younger than mine!"
  • Here We Go Again!: The movie concludes with Barbara buying and starting a new diary and beginning a friendship with yet another attractive younger woman.
  • Hidden Disdain Reveal: Barbara inadvertently does this to Sheba when the latter finds her diary and learns of her contempt for her and her family. Sheba responds in kind, telling her that everyone at school hated her and saying several other things that indicate she didn't think much of her either.
  • Historical In-Joke: Steven and Sheba's relationship sparks when she notices his artistic talent and encourages him. This is how Mary Kay Letourneau's molestation of her underage student began.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Were it not for Barbara so meticulously recording everything in her diary, Sheba would never have discovered her obsession with her, her disdain for her and her family, and that Barbara spilled the beans about her and Steven.
  • Hypocrite: Barbara is lonely and desperate for companionship, but she fails to realize that the reason people dislike her is because she is the one who regards other people with disdain as though they're not worthy of her.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Barbara twice falls in love with women who are straight (Jennifer and Sheba) and rather than trying to get over her feelings, tries to force them to reciprocate.
  • Informed Attractiveness: Sheba's beauty is an actual plot point, numerous characters comment on it. Even Sheba's own snotty, hyper-critical mother cruelly comments that it's a good job she's beautiful as she doesn't have much else going for her. Also, a majority of the teaching staff at the school that Sheba and Barbara work at either (like Brian or Barbara herself) seem to be secretly in love with her, or (like Sue) at least drawn to her.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: There's roughly a 30-year age difference between Sheba and Barbara.
  • In Medias Res: The novel starts out with Barbara comforting Sheba in the middle of the media circus surrounding the affair, then flashes back to how it started using portions of Barbara's diary. In the movie, by the time Barbara discovers the affair and confronts Sheba, the latter confesses and reveals via flashbacks that it's been going on for a while, quite possibly from as soon as she started at the school.
  • Irony: Barbara's clingy ways end up smothering the life out of the very relationships that she wants.
  • It's All About Me: Barbara. To the point where she genuinely cannot understand why Sheba's family is more of a priority than she is and sees her choosing them over her as a betrayal.
  • Jailbait Taboo: Steven. Had Sheba just waited a few months—"He's 16 in May!", the outraged reaction from everyone would probably have been the same, but at least she wouldn't be facing jail time—the age of consent in England is 16. It's possible this is why her prison sentence is a mere 10 months.
    • In the UK, age of consent laws don't actually apply to situations in which an adult has a position of power over a teenager (it's the same sort of law that also prevents things like doctors sleeping with their patients) - she likely would have still faced prison time, even if he were 16.
  • Jerkass: The headmaster and indeed Steven, Sheba's 15-year-old lover.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Barbara is understandably repulsed by Sheba's affair with a teenager and blasts her for her stupid actions, also citing the "cruelty of an adolescent boy" and warning Sheba about how Steven will discard, both of which are proven true within minutes when Steven is utterly uncaring when Sheba ends their fling.
  • Jerkass Realization: Sheba has this about Steven upon not only going to his home and realizing that he's being lying to her about his supposedly terrible situation with his parents, but how callous and uncaring he is about her having to end their fling because Barbara's found out, even crudely asking if Sheba's sleeping with her too, promptly her to pitifully ask why he's being so cruel.
  • Just in Time: Barbara barely makes it inside her apartment and shuts the door before Steven opens her fence and tries to attack her, having realized that she's the one who revealed his and Sheba's liaison.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Barbara again, although Adaptational Karma still applies for the film because she gets a little comeuppance, although nowhere close to what she deserved.
    • The DVD chapter names make it even clearer; the last chapter with Annabel is called "Moving On".
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Barbara, to the point where she's as devastated by her cat's death as one would be at the death of a loved one—outright saying "someone has died!"—and her anger at Sheba not being there for her leads her to spill the beans about her affair with Steven.
  • The Lost Lenore: Jennifer Dodd is this to Barbara, except she's not dead, she got engaged and got a job in Stoke. Sheba becomes this to her as well.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Barbara and, to a lesser extent, Steven.
  • May–December Romance: There's roughly a 20-year age difference between Sheba and her husband and Sheba and Steven (though that's child molestation rather than a sincere romance).
  • McGuffin: Barbara's diary.
  • Meaningful Echo: The last scene of the film with Annabel suggests that Barbara will attempt to pursue another relationship, with two interactions mirroring Barbara's old relationships: the bench where she sat with both Jennifer and Sheba, and Annabel getting a bit of coffee on her nose like Sheba.
  • Meaningful Name: Sheba Hart lets her "heart" rule her head while Barbara Covett "covets". As well as Sheba's full name, Bathsheba, a well-known adulteress from the Old Testament.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Barbara takes a rather dim view of everyone around her.
  • Noodle Incident: Aside from sending her fiance a funeral wreath, we never find out exactly what else Barbara said or did that left Jennifer Dodd so terrified that she felt the need to file a restraining order against her. Further dialogue implies that that not only is the order still in place, several years later, but that she is still afraid of her, being willing to communicate only via her attorney.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Barbara believes this about herself and Sheba. Interestingly, the same can be said of herself and Steven as both are romantically obsessed with the same unavailable woman who is way outside their respective age groups.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Headmaster, an Expy for Tony Blair.
  • The Peeping Tom: Barbara watches as Steven and Sheba have sex in her classroom, though it's out of being frozen in shock and horror at what she's seeing rather than being aroused.
  • The Plan: Barbara unleashes a few over the course of the movie.
  • Psycho Lesbian: Barbara. Although the relationships we hear of and see her in (Jennifer and Sheba, respectively) are platonic, it's obvious she wants more. She is also a Clingy Jealous Girl, having sent Jennifer's fiance a funeral wreath, and refusing to understand why Sheba's family takes priority over her.
  • Psychopathic Manchild:
    • Barbara as shown by her inserting gold star stickers in her diary.
    • Sheba to a lesser extent. Her behavior during her fling with Steven and her devastation when it ends is more akin to a schoolgirl with a crush than a married 30-something mother of two.
    • In the book, not only does she act more like a girl his age rather than a grown woman, by the time everything's over, her relationship with Barbara is more like mother/child than friends or lovers—Barbara's taking care of her to the point of having to feed her and put her to bed.
  • Psychotic Smirk: Barbara displays a few of these, namely while driving to meet and comfort Sheba after Steven has dumped her and while eavesdropping on Richard and Sheba's argument.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!:
    Headmaster: "A fax! From her solicitor! She! Didn't want you! Within Five! Hundred! Yards of her! By Law!"
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Barbara hands these out like candy and Sheba gets them back to back until Sheba goes and unleashes the mother of them all on Barbara at the films climax.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Barbara's preferred mode of speech. "S. and I share the ability to see through the quotidian awfulness of things."
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Barbara feels superior to most people despite living in a ground-level flat on the Archway Road with only her cat for company. Sheba calls her on this.
  • The Sociopath: Barbara.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Barbara and Steven, both towards Sheba. In the book, Sheba is this to Steven.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Sheba and Steven, of course, though given his age and their age difference, it's actually child molestation. Also Sheba and Richard.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Pretty much every character throughout the film has one of these. Steven has one when a classmate insults Sheba, Barbara has one when she finds out that the abuse is still going on and again later when Sheba refuses to help collect her dead cat from the vet, Steven's mother has one when she finds out about the abuse, Sheba's husband, Richard, has one when he finds out about it, but then Sheba, at the film's climax, goes and tops them all!
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The infamous Mary Kay Letourneau case. Blanchett even resembles Letourneau somewhat. Ironically, the movie has the more realistic ending—jail time and a damaged marriage/career for the perpetrator, whereas Letourneau and her victim married after her release from prison.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never see Steven or hear of him again after the scene where he attempts to attack Barbara.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Barbara. No matter what horrible things she does or havoc she wreaks, there is something so inherently pathetic and pitiful about her that one cannot bring oneself to hate her. Especially since she does somewhat suffer the consequences of her actions, losing her friendships with Jennifer and Sheba, as well as her job.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Steven tells Sheba a sob story about an abusive father and ill mother to play on her sympathies. She's floored when she goes to his home and sees that things are perfectly normal.
  • Yandere: Barbara, of course.

"You bitter old virgin!"

Alternative Title(s): Notes On A Scandal