approximately 57 minutes and 49 seconds on-screen
roughly 63% of film's total screen time
roughly 63% of film's total screen time
Blanchett plays Sheba, a new Art teacher at the rough-scrabble London secondary school where Dench's Barbara has taught for years. Her arrival to the dingy environs seems to brighten the place, energizing students and staff both, though Sheba herself remains blithely unaware of this impact.
Instead, Blanchett's Sheba struggles miserably to find her footing amidst the chaos. Early scenes show Blanchett's Sheba trying to maintain discipline on the playground and in the classroom, every gesture a stutter and every attempt a dismal failure. Sheba's lack of authority seems, at least on first glance, to derive from inexperience and underconfidence. Sheba's a new teacher, after all, and teenagers are freaky entities. But as things unspool, it becomes clearer: Blanchett's Sheba is lost on the playground because no one's paying attention to her. It's not just self-consciousness; it's self-absorption at its most abject. And soon Blanchett's Sheba will feel the consequences of this neediness and just how keenly her unsteadiness has been observed.
But Blanchett's Sheba is no obvious gaping maw of need. No. Blanchett's Sheba is a charismatic and versatile charmer, capable of making almost any man, woman or child feel a little more wonderful for having caught her eye. This incongruity -- the brilliant scintillating person who's also a desperate people pleaser with rock-bottom self-esteem -- is not only the lynchpin of the character (as it's what makes Sheba such an easy mark for erotic predators of all stripes) but it's what Blanchett just nails in her performance: Blanchett's Sheba is just lost unless she can see herself reflected in the eyes of another.
In essential ways, Blanchett's Sheba is the center of this film. Predators can smell Sheba's kind of need a mile away and so they begin to circle around her. And it's the voracious hunger that Blanchett's Sheba inspires in diverse predators -- randy schoolboys, crafty schoolmarms, flashing paparazzi -- that focuses the film. The film plays this shellgame of "Who's The Predator Now" smart, glibly pacing itself and deftly using Dench's delicious voice-overs -- ruminations from Barbara's diary -- to paste over the narrative potholes swiftly.
And Blanchett's casting is no less essential than Dench's in making this pap work so well. Indeed, Blanchett's at her best in this kind of character -- someone who's outward affect is shockingly estranged from her inner life. Here, Blanchett's able to make sense of Sheba's emotional reality while also making it clear that Sheba's entirely divorced from real implications of her actions. Sheba doesn't mean to make a mess, really she doesn't. And, somehow, Blanchett's able to maintain the emotional sincerity of her character's idiocy. Consider a brief scene, occuring just a day or so after Blanchett's Sheba has sworn to Dench's Barbara that she will break off her illicit affair with a student, Steven (the perfectly cast newcomer Andrew Simpson). Steven surprises Sheba outside her home on Christmas day and gives her a gift; the two hide under a porch as Sheba's husband (the surprising and effective Bill Nighy) calls for her. Steven asks, "Is that your dad?" Sheba emphatically shakes her head, "No," before adding -- in a lie that seems to surprise even her -- "No, my uncle" -- as she mentally tallies her obligations to her lover, her husband, her confidante, etcetera, etcetera... And here it becomes clear -- Blanchett's Sheba is negotiating her way to her next "fix." Blanchett's Sheba emerges as a powerful, effective portrait of the devastation of addiction and compulsion. Few actresses of any era could inhabit Sheba as efficiently and as completely as Blanchett does in this quick sequence and it's a reminder of why Blanchett has emerged as one of the go-to actresses in contemporary gourmet film.
But is Blanchett's Sheba rightly considered a "supporting" actress in Notes on a Scandal. Blanchett's on camera for nearly two-thirds of the film and, even in most of the scenes where Blanchett does not appear, the character of Sheba remains the focus of attention or discussion. It's a curious conundrum of category. What makes a supporting actress after all?