Notes on a Scandal -- notable: This was a superb and wonderfully acted film. The entire cast including, of course, Judi Dench (Barbara) and Kate Blanchett (Sheba) gave sterling performances. The film has much to say and there is much to think about. I thought the movie was about loyalty, altruism, friendship, sadness, emptiness and purpose in life. It was about the unexpected and unanticipated outcomes of life. It was about morality and it was about loneliness.
Barbara is an aging, single and devastatingly lonely history teacher who develops an emotional and even sexual attachment to the comparatively youngish, very pretty, newly hired, insecure art teacher, Sheba. Sheba's problematic family life adds to her loneliness. She is married to an older man and has two children who present her with hard-to-manage unanticipated consequential situations. One of her children is a seemingly rather difficult teenage girl and the other is a son with Downs Syndrome.
Wading through her loneliness and difficulties, Sheba commits an immoral act which Barbara inadvertently observes; the stage is set for unforeseen consequences. There is too much in this movie to relate the ensuing events nor would I want to be a spoiler. There are pertinent questions, though, I think a viewer of the movie could keep in mind.
Why do people do what they do? When must we say no to one's impulses? Where is the line we and society draw and is it ever understandable when we cross that line? What is the nature of friendship? Ayn Randian questions always plague me. Are people really altruistic or do we do things because, in the end, we alone need to do them? Does self-interest always prevail and does it doom us? Barbara befriends Sheba and Sheba develops a great misplaced trust. Because of that events unfold and Sheba's world is upended. Barbara, I think, really cares about no one except herself and yet I built up an intense empathy for Barbara whose loneliness literally drips from every pore of her being. Is she evil? Is she completely pathologic as she flits from one receptive flower to the next? Is Barbara's reaction to life understandable? Does Sheba reap what she alone has sewn through her immoral act? Who is the more immoral of the two? What is betrayal and is it ever right? Barbara after all, I think, really does not betray because of a sense of right but because of a jealous sense of wrong that she feels was committed against her.
Personally, although some kinds of altruism, I think, exist, I do believe most people do what it is in their own self interest to do. Barbara did not offer to help Sheba through her difficulties out of an altruistic friendship she offered to help Sheba because she needed and wanted to possess her. Sheba committed an immoral act without thought of consequences to anyone including her family because she, too, needed to do so. The two protagonists were using people to satisfy their own urges and remedy their own disappointments in life.
I do believe we as a society need to create morality and set certain albeit arbitrary standards because, in the end, humans are still primitive beings. Left to our own devices we would do anything we want and a kind of social anarchy would and does often prevail. This film was riveting. I highly recommend it.