A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this adult-targeted drama (which probably won't have much appeal for teens anyway) features mature themes and some sexual imagery. Specifically, a female teacher, Sheba, has sex with her 15-year-old male student, and the footage is fairly explicit (heavy breathing and rolling on ground; the teacher in her bra, kneeling and touching the boy's torso). The movie's other predominant sexual theme concerns a fellow female teacher's crush on Sheba, which inspires amorous dreams and comments in her diary, as well as some social machinations (she betrays a friend, spreads rumors, and judges her peers). Boys fight at school; the teachers fight, too (slapping and pushing). Characters drink beer, wine, and liquor (in a flashback, Sheba drinks beer with the student) and smoke cigarettes. Language includes some 15 uses of "f--k," plus "s--t" and "arse," in addition to some name-calling ("fatty," "pig," "tart," etc.).
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What's the story?
In NOTES ON A SCANDAL, History teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) becomes infatuated with a new, younger colleague, art teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett), who happens to be having an affair with a 15-year-old student. When Sheba won't give Barbara the time and attention she desires, Barbara lets the cat out of the bag and Sheba's life is turned upside down.
Is it any good?
The film's great trick is that no matter how badly Barbara behaves -- and she does connive with some venom -- she remains "sympathetic" in the sense that she's utterly compelling. (This is, of course, primarily a function of Dench's strong performance.) She's also strangely endearing and quite blind to herself. The film's finale is both harsh and broadly melodramatic, and so fits Barbara's idea of herself -- deflated perhaps, but never defeated.
As the school year starts, Barbara glowers from a second-floor window, deeming the yard full of students to be "the local pubescent proles, the future lumbers and shop assistants and doubtless the odd terrorist too." Accompanied by Philip Glass' score, Dench is delightfully forbidding here, her demeanor unchanged as the camera picks out Sheba bicycling among the uniformed students, with little sign of the complications that are about to ensue. Sheba is so self-absorbed that she doesn't notice Barbara's needs until the older woman demands not only that Sheba give up the boy, but also, eventually, her family. Barbara's own observations are both prickly and entertaining; they reveal her own inclinations even when she thinks she's maintaining her distance.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about relationships between teachers and students. How does Sheba cross the accepted boundaries? How does telling her story from Barbara's perspective affect the film? How might Sheba, Steven, or other characters see events and individuals differently? Does Sheba's life at home affect how you feel about her and what she does? How?
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