Notes on a Scandal (2006) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A veteran high school teacher befriends a younger art teacher, who is having an affair with one of her 15-year-old students. However, her intentions with this new "friend" also go well beyond platonic friendship.

  • The bitter, cynical and lonely Barbara Covett is a tough and conservative teacher, near to retirement, who is loathed by her colleagues and students. In the loneliness of her apartment, she spends her spare time writing her journal, taking care of her old cat Portia and missing her special friend Jennifer Dodd. When Sheba Hart joins the high-school as the new art teacher, Barbara dedicates her attention to the newcomer, writing sharp and unpleasant comments about her behavior and clothes. When Barbara helps Sheba in a difficult situation with two students, the grateful Sheba invites her to have lunch with her family. Sheba introduces her husband and former professor Richard Hart, who is about twenty years older than she; her rebellious teenager daughter Polly; and her son Ben that has Down's Syndrome. Barbara becomes close to Sheba, but when she accidentally discovers that Sheba is having an affair with the fifteen year-old student Steven Connolly, Barbara sees the chance to manipulate and get closer to Sheba, hiding the secret from the school headmaster. When Portia dies and Sheba does not stay with Barbara in the veterinary office to see Ben in a theater play, Barbara plots a Machiavellian revenge against Sheba, creating a scandal and consequent turmoil in their lives.

  • Barbara Covett teaches history in an inner city high school in London. She has contempt for most people in her life, including most of her colleagues and her students. She believes they, in turn, see her as what she calls "the battle-ax": someone who they don't much like, but at least respect, especially as an authority figure. She leads a solitary life, her confidantes being her cat Portia and her diary, to which she confesses all. She is keeping what she believes is a secret about her life. Close to retirement, Barbara is re-energized when Sheba Hart is hired as the school's new art teacher, Sheba who has only recently returned to the workforce. Sheba is in many ways the antithesis of Barbara: relatively young, pretty, popular with both the students and her colleagues, but not being able to instill any discipline among her students. On the surface, Sheba has a happy life, which includes an older husband, and two children, her youngest, Ben, who has Down Syndrome. But underlying the surface, Sheba feels unfulfilled, which is fostered in part by an uncaring mother. Unknown to Sheba or anyone else, Barbara has chosen her as her current focus of life. Their relationship, which is initially cordial, changes when Barbara catches Sheba in an illegal indiscretion. Again unknown to Sheba, Barbara decides to use this information to get out of Sheba what she ultimately wants in life.

  • Barbara Covett is lonely and bitter teacher at a high school, nearing retirement. She spends her time writing up a diary and caring for an elderly cat. When Sheba Hart joins the faculty, Barbara is interested in the young woman. Barbara befriends her, and Sheba invites Barbara to lunch with the family. Barbara writes up scornful remarks about the husband and is particularly caustic about their son, who has Down's Syndrome. The drama begins when Barbara discovers that Sheba is having an affair with a fifteen-year-old student, Steven. Barbara sees she can coerce and influence Sheba. She demands that Sheba break it off. When Sheba fails to, Barbara strikes out, disclosing the affair to other faculty. The school acts and Sheba is let go. Barbara is also fired for not disclosing the business to officials; however, we learn that there has been a history - Barbara has stalked a previous teacher, and the school is glad to get rid of her. In the spiraling crisis of Sheba's life, Sheba is forced to move out of her home. Sheba is then manipulated into living with Barbara. However, it becomes clear that the older woman wants a romantic partner; Sheba reacts to this angrily.

  • Barbara Covett is a veteran and cynical schoolteacher who is close to retirement. She is barely tolerated by her less brilliant and acerbic colleagues who know nothing about her private life which consists mainly of taking care of Portia, her aging cat, and spending countless hours alone. The only means she has found to take the edge off her desperate loneliness is writing in her journal. When Sheba Hart, a younger, attractive woman, joins the faculty as an art teacher, Barbara watches her from afar and has nothing but caustic things to say in her diary about her clothing and her care-free manner. Despite her disdain for this woman, Barbara finds herself reaching out to her. Sheba responds by inviting her to dinner at her house to meet Sheba's lecturer husband, who is twenty years her senior, and their two children, a sexy and rebellious 16-year-old daughter and a younger boy with Downs Syndrome. Instead of opening herself to these people, Barbara immediately sees them as competition to be beaten in the battle for Sheba's attention. Later, when Barbara discovers her new friend in a classroom having sex with Steven, a 15-year-old from the school who has artistic talent; she realizes that knowledge of this secret gives her power over Sheba which she can use for her own purposes. Barbara promises to not tell anyone but insists that the affair must end immediately. Sheba says she will but finds herself drawn back to the boy again and again. Sheba seems uneasy with Barbara's friendship and is appalled when she discovers the older woman might have a sexual interest in her. The tenuous relationship between the two women reaches a crisis point when Barbara's cat is dying and she asks Sheba to go with her to the vet. She chooses to go with her family to see their son in a play instead. In revenge, Barbara sets in motion the scandal that will rock both their lives in ways they never imagined.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) teaches history at a comprehensive school in London. A lonely old spinster, Barbara's only "intimate relationship" is with herself by means of a diary. When a new, younger teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) starts at the school, Barbara feels drawn to her and believes that she "may be the one." Barbara discovers that Sheba is having an affair with a student, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), and confronts her. When Sheba asks her to not tell the school administration until Christmas so that she can be with her family, Barbara explains she has no intention of telling, as long as she ends the relationship. However, Sheba does not end the affair with Steven, causing Barbara to taunt her emotionally and draw her down, leading her to end the affair with Steven. In months passing, Barbara's grasp on Sheba slowly starts to take hold, with Barbara manipulating and emotionally blackmailing her, causing her attentions to be divided between her family and Barbara.

    When Barbara's cat dies and Sheba's loyalties are easily divided, Sheba's husband Richard shouts in anger that her friend is being an evident pain and that his wife is being twisted by Barbara. With Barbara being left alone and angry, she seeks revenge by revealing Sheba's affair to a fellow teacher who comes to her asking her if Sheba is interested in him. The fellow teacher spreads the "playground rumour" to Steven's mother. Mrs Connolly then comes to Sheba's home and hits Sheba. Afterwards Sheba and her husband Richard bitterly argue. In Barbara's voiceover, she reveals she is glad that they are arguing, knowing that Sheba will come to her for comfort, which had been Barbara's plan to start with. The next day the media, as well as the school administration, are alerted, and Sheba's affair and her life are turned upside down by the collapse of her marriage, the destroyed relationship with her children, and the loss of her job. Barbara is fired from the school after denying to the headmaster that she knew of the relationship; he confronts her with a copy of a restraining order taken out against Barbara by another fellow teacher whom she had previously befriended.

    Sheba ends up moving into Barbara's house, believing that the affair became known because Steven confessed it to his mother, but Sheba soon finds Barbara's diary and learns that it was Barbara who leaked the story of the affair, on account of the rather sexual attraction Barbara seems to have for her. When Barbara returns from a shopping round, she is confronted with a furiously angry Sheba, who strikes her in anger. Barbara says she has done her a favor by getting her out of a hopeless marriage. The two of them continue to shout and fight with one another, and Sheba claims that Barbara never really liked her, but in fact manipulated her for her own personal needs. Sheba runs outside with Barbara's journal, to streams of reporters and photographers. She shouts at them in a deluded fashion shouting that she is here, but eventually is hemmed in by a crush of reporters and photographers, at which point Barbara rescues her. Sheba's emotions spent, she quietly tells Barbara that she had initiated the friendship because she had liked her (Barbara) and they could have been friends. Barbara says she needs more than a friend, implying but not saying that she needs someone who is a close companion and lover. Sheba leaves Barbara, placing the journal on the table. Sheba returns to her family home. Richard answers the door. Sheba faces her husband with the silent questions "Can you forgive me? Can I come in?". Richard silently considers, and then allows her to enter.

    Sheba is sentenced to 10 months, and the last scene is Barbara meeting another younger woman who is reading a newspaper reporting the Sheba Hart affair. Barbara says she used to know Sheba, but then says she didn't know her well. Barbara quickly introduces herself, and the other woman introduces herself as Annabelle. The pair continue to talk. Barbara mentions about attending a stage play, but then saying that she would much like a friendly companion to join her, which is implied to be Annabelle.

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