The ancient riddle runs: “What’s a psychiatrist?” Answer: “a man who goes to the Folies-BergÃ¨re and looks at the audience.”
A good deal of “looking at the audience” becomes inevitable when one contemplates the recent British movie Notes on a Scandal. Not that it is at all lacking in purely artistic merit. On the contrary, it is among Britain’s most powerful films in years. Nevertheless its power is of such a culturally resonant sort, that it simply cannot be put aside after one viewing.
Notes on a Scandal revolves around St. George’s, an imaginary high school in the London suburb of Islington. To call St. George’s a zoo would be to defame captive animals. In an eloquent voice-over, one of the movie’s two main characters, Barbara Covett (played by Dame Judi Dench), summarizes the institution’s pedagogic trend since she began work there: whereas thirty years previously the confiscated objects were marijuana and pornographic magazines, “now it’s knives and crack cocaine. And they call it progress.” The classrooms resemble airports, such is their profusion of metal detectors. Like every school committed to destroying standards, it is coeducational. Administering corporal punishment is of course forbidden to staff members, but occurs daily among bellicose students. Barbara has a thankless job as a history teacher, trying to explain the existence of Martin Luther to truculent teenaged hormone-bags too illiterate to have heard of anyone before Martin Luther King.
Thus far, St. George’s might seem identical to an American public school, but a few factors differentiate the two phenomena. First, students wear a uniform. Second, the male students are not hopped to the eyeballs with Ritalin. Third, the school goes through the motions of a religious ceremony for Yuletide; and while this ceremony insults the intelligence of any believer with a triple-digit IQ – it imitates James Brown’s epileptiform convulsions in The Blues Brothers – it has not actually been banned, as it would surely be banned wherever the ACLU’s writ runs.
Into this milieu breezes a new art teacher, Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett). With Sheba, the movie’s makers have managed a remarkably difficult technical feat: they have rendered interesting a principal character with no intellectual distinction at all. Once Sheba arrives, Barbara – whose sarcastic bitterness and fundamental loneliness have already been emphasized – asks herself: “Is she a sphinx or merely stupid?” We soon find out. Sheba’s sole discernible mental furniture consists of garbled Virginia Woolf clichÃ©s, echoing ad infinitum inside the emptiness of her head. The modest competence needed to attend her first staff meeting on time is beyond her abilities, as is the maintenance of elementary classroom crowd-control. Throughout the movie she says nothing that is not banal, and little that is not fatuous. Other than a facile gift for pottery, she is void of talent, though she has an elaborate home studio in order to give her talentlessness a suitably opulent habitat. She has only taken to teaching, we learn, because the demands of looking after Ben have made her disenchanted with her family. Ben, twelve years old, has Down’s Syndrome.
Of the Hart family’s other members, Polly, Sheba’s daughter, has graduated cum laude from the Britney Spears College of Deportment and Sartorial Taste. Polly exudes insolence, cigarette smoke, and casual blasphemies (“Jesus wept!!!”) in about equal proportions. Richard, Sheba’s husband, is a foul-mouthed, fashionably unkempt academic. We are not told his particular field, but it cannot have been rocket science, since Sheba first met him, and broke up his previous marriage, while she attended his classes. Here, then, we have as comprehensive a depiction of modern British bourgeois Bohemians – “BoBos”, for short – as can be imagined.
Among St. George’s few white students is a fifteen-year-old lad named Stephen Connolly, whose accent (Liverpudlian-Irish?) is so viscous as to be largely unintelligible without subtitles, except for his loving enunciation of the term “c**t”. Sheba, naturally, offers him one-on-one tuition. Equally naturally, she soon starts having sex with him. He complains to her about his dying mother and sadistic father; we afterwards learn that these complaints are absolute lies. No matter: Sheba considers it her job to rescue him from such suffering. A nonwhite toyboy would be, for her, unthinkable; but a white proletarian toyboy appeals to the Mrs. Jellyby streak with which she, like numerous other trendy pedagogues, is endowed. Barbara discovers, by chance, Sheba and Stephen making whoopee in the art room. Confronted with this discovery, Sheba promises to end the affair by Christmas. Predictably, she does no such thing. Far from blackmailing Sheba about her relationship, Barbara endangers herself by concealing it from what must loosely be referred to as authority. This “authority” being the school principal, who is genetically programmed with extra chromosomes of abject moral cowardice, as so many school principals are in real life, and as so few are in movies.
The above brief account leaves most of the plot, and of the film’s second half, undisclosed. Let it simply be said that Notes on a Scandal shows a kind of genius. That genius lies in the completeness with which it reveals a society as free from all ethical moorings – as free even from the vaguest recollection of ethical moorings – as Weimar Republican Berlin. Apart from two minor characters (Stephen’s bewildered father, and a briefly glimpsed veterinary surgeon who attends to Barbara’s cat), the only figure capable of behaving like an adult is Barbara. And she herself soon comes to take an unhealthy interest, possibly erotic, in Sheba. The difference is that she realizes the interest’s unhealthiness, and labors to abide by a moral code that she did not simply filch from last month’s number of Marie-Claire. Such labors make her as undesirable a freak, to her colleagues, as if she were Jane Austen. Therefore she must be punished with the full rigor of BoBo justice, where the Nanny State’s law counts for everything and the wider natural law counts for nothing; where friendships are ended not by grown-up discussion, but by the issuance of restraining orders; where being a narcissistic little girl trapped in a fortyish art teacher’s body is considered, not a disgrace to adulthood, but a valid lifestyle choice.
There is no reason to suppose that this near-perfect depiction of nihilism exaggerates, in any way, the quotidian horror of Britain under Blair. There is every reason to suppose that, if anything, it understates such horror. The British dispatches from Theodore Dalrymple, Peter Hitchens, and Geoffrey Wheatcroft regularly convey to us a land as unrecognizable from its 1970s self (some of us remember that self from our youth) as today’s Spain is from Franco’s. Note that to perceive Britain’s current thoroughgoing civilizational corruption, we need not even behold Blairism’s most specific miseries: the exorbitant crime rates that have ineluctably resulted from gun control; the inundation of every British metropolis under Islam’s tide; the home-grown terrorists; or the same-sex “civil union” bill that a putatively Christian Queen Elizabeth II signed into law. Notes on a Scandal leaves these unmentioned. They would be irrelevant. Sheba Hart’s environment is, heaven help us, the comparatively amiable face of modern Britain. Orwell’s words remain apposite:
“Emancipation is complete. Freud and Machiavelli have reached the outer suburbs … one is driven to feel that snobbishness, like hypocrisy, is a check upon behavior whose value from a social point of view has been underrated.”
The thought automatically hits a part-British-domiciled movie-lover: what earlier writing does Notes on a Scandal evoke? One answer is The Browning Version, the most celebrated, and maybe the finest, play by Sir Terence Rattigan (1911-1977). First performed in 1948, this play endured two inadequate cinematic adaptations: the Michael Redgrave one of 1951, with a glib happy ending tacked on against Rattigan’s better judgment; and a crass 1994 remake notable chiefly for Greta Scacchi’s metronomic disrobing. Happily, the BBC released in 1985 a TV version, with Ian Holm in the central part, which hews to Rattigan’s original text.
Going from St. George to the unidentified school of The Browning Version is like going from a locked psychiatric ward to an ancient Greek temple. In fact classical Greek literature dominates the play: the title refers to Robert Browning’s translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, a copy of which assumes dramatic significance out of all proportion to its size. The protagonist is an elderly classics master, Andrew (“the Crock”) Crocker-Harris, possibly impotent, and certainly cuckolded by his greedy wife. Like Barbara, the Crock evinces formidable sarcasm. Unlike Barbara, he need not spend his entire waking life in moral isolation. His wife’s paramour, Hunter, is seized with guilt at the affair, and displays a decent humility towards the Crock, with whom he shares a desire to save face. Moreover, he would share this with the Crock even if Greek and Latin formed no part of the curriculum.
At this school, metal-detectors and self-esteem agitprop are alike unimagined. Even given names rust unused. The sole student who appears on stage, surnamed Taplow, is always addressed as Taplow. But the characters” most profound emotions are intensified, rather than diminished, through the very formalism of the surroundings. Mrs. Crocker-Harris does not consider adultery wrong, but she undeniably considers it important. One of the play’s climaxes comes when the Crock learns that his domineering abrasiveness has prompted the boys to call him “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth”. (The 1994 version’s screenplay propitiated Hollywood moronism by changing this to “the Hitler of the Lower Fifth.”) This was 1948; Himmler’s name still carried, in England, the power to scandalize. Rattigan’s resolution of the storyline is too rich and complex to reveal in a mere article for persons unfamiliar with it. Suffice it to observe that the Crock, even after his humiliation, retains a battered dignity. He does not – as a Blairite hero would undoubtedly feel compelled to do – engage in constant primal-scream sessions, such as we witnessed the Great British Public performing after Princess Diana’s death.
Were all Britain’s schools in 1948 as gracious and courtly as this one? Probably not. Perhaps Rattigan’s portrayal bespoke some wishful thinking (although he himself attended such a school). Yet if wishful thinking it was, Rattigan must have shared it with hordes of others. After World War II he had three plays running simultaneously in London’s West End, and The Browning Version has been periodically revived wherever English-language theater flourishes. It could never have enjoyed such success if it had been solely a private dream of Rattigan’s. No, in this play as in several other plays, Rattigan filled a deep imaginative need of audiences. Not one 1948 viewer in a hundred would have attended such a school as The Browning Version delineates. Still, every 1948 viewer would have thought, with at least part of his mind, that this was what a school should be like. That it should teach certain objective moral truths; that it had no business confusing the function of a teacher with the function of a friend, let alone that of an ephebophile; and that there might be some value in what Kipling called “the gods of the copybook headings“, gods who must forever wearily remind progressives of such admonitions as “Stick with the devil you know” and “The dog returns to his vomit.”
Which British author now alive could permit himself such “elitist” and “insensitive” thoughts as these? If, somehow, he did think upon such lines, what British producer would dare to stage the results as a living drama, rather than as a quaint period-piece? It took the visual arts six centuries to descend from Giotto to Jackson Pollock. It took Britain fewer than sixty years to descend from the Crock’s dignified dutifulness, to Sheba Hart’s caterwauling estrogen. What conceivable hope is there for a society which believes – and most reviewers of Notes on a Scandal, presumably besotted with Miss Blanchett, manifestly did believe – that the latter constitutes a spiritual improvement on the former?