“I Wanna Hold Your Hand:” Hands as a Motif in NOTES ON A SCANDAL
22 May 2011
To call Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), from Richard Eye’s 2006 drama Notes on a Scandal, an introvert is an understatement. Barbara lives her life primarily within her own mind, where her thoughts and actions center on herself. Although Barbara is a functioning member of society, employed as a school teacher, she rarely expresses herself to the outside world, choosing instead to pour her unfiltered thoughts into journals. However, when a new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), is hired at Barbara’s school, Barbara develops a growing infatuation for companionship (not necessarily a sexual infatuation), which forces her to communicate, in her own way, with the outside world. However, unlike more traditional communication, Barbara does not use language to express herself; she uses a more intimate sense. Barbara attempts to communicate her passion for Sheba though touch. This communication is problematic and, at times, awkward, because it is not entirely clear; Barbara is not being direct about her growing feelings for Sheba. To subtly highlight Barbara’s poor communication, the film narrows in on her hands as a prominent motif of misinterpreted communication.
In the beginning it is difficult to notice Barbara never touches anyone, even a passing, casual touch of the shoulder. To subtly emphasize the lack of physical communication, the film often maintains medium and close-up shots of Dench, so she is alone in the frame. As other characters, like Sheba and Steven, become more physical with one another, it becomes clearer Barbara is resistant, if not entirely put off to touching others. As the movie progresses, Barbara slowly begins to extend her hands to Sheba, intending to communicate her loving feelings toward her. The only living thing Barbara touches aside from Sheba is Portia, her cat. It is understood Barbara loves her cat a great deal, so identifying Sheba as the only other being Barbara touches clarifies just how significant Sheba is to Barbara.
The first time she touches Sheba is when Sheba herself takes Barbara’s hand, as she officially introduces herself as the new teacher in school. Taken aback by Sheba’s forwardness, this initial touch incorrectly symbolizes to Barbara a willingness, on Sheba’s part, to develop what Barbara perceives as a commitment of companionship. As the film continues, Barbara becomes more forward about touching Sheba, still never putting her hands on anyone else. At one point, Barbara puts her arm, rather awkwardly, around Sheba as they walk. Also, when Sheba confesses her affair with Steven, Barbara places her hand over Sheba’s to reassure her everything will be alright. Even when Barbara takes Sheba to the bench, where the film both opens and closes, she and Sheba hold hands as Barbara perceives their relationship to burgeon.
Of course, the most obvious example of Barbara’s hands as a motif of her emotional communication comes as she strokes Sheba’s arm, telling her how, as a schoolgirl, she and friends would calm each other down this way. Clearly, Barbara has raised the stakes with this action. Unlike the previous, rather casual ways she placed her hand(s) on Sheba, this move is more assertive, risky, and overt. Clearly, Barbara’s feelings for Sheba are escalating rapidly, and she is becoming more comfortable communicating, in the only way she knows how. Unfortunately, the gesture is uncomfortable. The stroking is rich with innuendo, yet awkward because it is completely inappropriate. Barbara, as the introvert, has a difficult time understand the precarious position Sheba is in with Steven and her husband. Barbara’s desire to touch is, sadly, out of touch with reality.
When Portia dies, Barbara’s hands communicate her most unrestrained passion toward Sheba. When Sheba refuses to accompany Barbara to Portia’s veterinarian’s office, Barbara literally grabs Sheba by her coat, pulling her close brutally. The film gradually increased not only attention to Barbara’s hands, but also the amount of passion Barbara exudes through them. As Sheba pulls away from Barbara, Barbara quickly puts her only visible hand in her pocket. Because Sheba upset Barbara, Barbara, in haste, pulled back emotionally, symbolized by putting her hand in her pocket. All of a sudden, the significant motif that had increasing attention is removed entirely.
Realizing she may lose Sheba, which, to Barbara, is more upsetting than Sheba’s betrayal, Barbara takes her hand from her pocket and places it on Sheba’s arm. Unfortunately, Sheba still refuses to accompany Barbara to the veterinarian, which is the beginning of the end for the fanaticized relationship Barbara created between the two women.
After Sheba and Steven’s affair is revealed, Steven’s mother comes to the Hart home to confront Sheba. Steven’s mother attacks Sheba physically, striking her several times with her bare hands. Instinctually, Barbara goes after Steven’s mother, pulling her off Sheba. Not wanting to see Sheba, hurt Barbara had to pull the violence away. Yet, it is also highly likely Barbara was irritated by another person putting hands on Sheba; Barbara is territorial of Sheba. Barbara thinks ill of Sheba’s husband, not because of his personality, but because he touches Sheba. Additionally, Barbara didn’t have an ethic conflict with Steven and Sheba’s relationship. Barbara’s posed as a friend trying to stop Sheba from ruining her life and family for an affair with a minor, but, in reality, Steven was touching Sheba; Barbara does not want or like anyone touching Sheba. Even the violent attack Steven’s mother comes at her with is touching Sheba, and that Barbara won’t stand for.
Another important point is the only other object Barbara touches with her hands as lovingly as Portia and Sheba are her journals. The journals are very much like Portia and Sheba; the journals are where Barbara communicates, awkwardly and inappropriately, her passions. Writing is dependent on the sense of touch: clenching the pen between fingers, feeling the pressure of the pen against the page, and rubbing a hand over the permanently indented page. Like her physical communication with Portia and Sheba, she is revealing herself though her hands with her journal.
Ultimately, but not surprisingly, Barbara and Sheba’s “relationship” ends. Although it initially appears Sheba leaves Barbara, with rather good reason, there is enough evidence to support Barbara wanted no more to do with Sheba. During a physical altercation between the two, Sheba rips the journal viciously from Barbara’s hands and carries it
outside, where reporters have gathered. Sheba’s impulsive reactions with the journal in her hands are an ultimate betrayal to Barbara. Sheba’s actions violate, destroy, and publicize the introverted Barbara’s attempted communication. Literally, Sheba takes Barbara’s most sacred thoughts and possession out of her hands. This is the point of no return.
By the end of Notes on a Scandal, this is confirmed, when Barbara returns to her bench overlooking the city. There is a new, young woman seated, Annabel. It is clear to the audience Barbara has moved on. In fact, Barbara extends her hand to shake Annabel’s. This handshake solidifies Barbara’s attraction to Annabel, and the continuation of the cycle of poor communication that will, likely, end badly.