I love a good juicy potboiler, and it doesn’t hurt when the leads are women (played in this case by the superlative Judi Dench and the wonderful Cate Blanchett). It does hurt that Notes on a Scandal’s plot—adapted from a novel by Zoe Heller—trades in stereotypes of the “vampire lesbian,” the frigid spinster, and the bitter, battle axe school teacher, but Dench’s acting mitigates these images to an extent that makes the film worth seeing.
Dench plays Barbara Covett, the longtime school teacher intrigued by the lithe (and blithe) new art teacher, Sheba Hart. Their names set up the basic plot device: through prurient entries in her long-running journal, to which the audience is privy through deliciously deluded voiceovers, Barbara writes that she feels Sheba is “the one I’ve waited for,” and begins to covet her close friendship and even her body, at which she gazes with a barely contained lascivious longing throughout the film.
Sheba approaches middle age with a dawning disappointment in how her life has transpired, undone by what she calls the “gap” between life as it is and life as she imagined it would be. Listening only to her heart, she’s manipulated into an impetuous affair with a 15-year-old student who plays on her beauty and her liberal sympathies to seduce her. When Barbara discovers the affair, she decides to use the secret to claim Sheba’s affections and her intimacy, ever increasing the stridency and unreasonableness of her emotional demands until the secret unravels and both women come to a qualified ruin.
Their class status has everything to do with how far (or not) these women fall. Sheba comes to teaching on something of a lark, desperate for some freedom from her family rather than because she really needs to work. Her much older husband (played with amused then wounded, lanky playfulness by Bill Nighy) was her teacher at university; her teenaged daughter is absorbed in her own romantic angst; and her affectionate 10-year-old son was born with Down’s syndrome. Their clearly upper-middle class home, inherited from a monied family, is full of noise and clutter, dancing and laughter, and the intimate, casual physical intimacy they bring along.
One of the best scenes in the film brings Barbara to Sheba’s pleasantly upended household for a Sunday lunch, keenly highlighting their differences and the reasons why the ascetic Barbara would be attracted to Sheba’s warm, overflowing life. Taking the invitation way too seriously, the usually disheveled schoolmarm buys a new outfit and accessories, has her hair done and her face made up, and arrives at Sheba’s door full of excitement barely cloaked in what she thinks is the proper formality.
Dench stands before the doorbell, wiping sweating palms on her new suit, hesitating before she rings, her face full of painfully absurd hope and expectation. That brief moment captures the desire of the outcast. Even though by that point, we know that Barbara is insane, her girlish anticipation and social awkwardness is wrenching and strangely moving. She’s out of a league she both wants to infiltrate and wants to dismantle.
The husband, Richard, greets Barbara and the daughter scrutinizes her while Sheba romps elsewhere with the son, Ben. When the daughter asks impertinently why she’s all dressed up, Barbara lies and says she has a later appointment, instantly adapting herself to her changed circumstances. When the family stages their after-dinner dance ritual, Barbara watches what she calls their “bourgeois bohemian behavior” with marked scorn, until Richard insists that she join them. She protests weakly, letting him pull her to her feet, then stands awkwardly, watching the family’s bodies moving freely all around her. Desperate to appear to belong, Barbara begins to move hesitantly, pushing her body about with little jerks that make her look ridiculous. This, too, neatly captures Barbara’s desire to be and to have something that eludes her.
These early scenes provide more layered, nuanced observations of character. Once Barbara discovers Sheba’s affair, the film drops precipitously into melodrama and the unfortunate stereotypes that drive Barbara’s character become more evident. In grim voiceover, she conspires to bind Sheba closer by keeping the secret of her affair, but the costs for both women grow large. When Barbara’s beloved cat Portia dies, Barbara insists that Sheba accompany her to the vet, literally pulling her between her own needs and those of Sheba’s family, who wait impatiently in their family station wagon to leave for Ben’s first-ever school performance. Sheba “naturally” chooses her family against Barbara’s unnatural expectations; Barbara flies into a rage and leaks the secret of her affair.
When the boy’s utterly ordinary parents find out that his teacher is abusing him, they drive to the Hart house for a confrontation that’s staged as a cat fight between the boy’s mother and Sheba, precipitating the descent of media hounds who feed on Sheba’s shame. Her daughter screams at Sheba for having sex with a boy younger than her own boyfriend, and Richard kicks Sheba out of the family home. She flies into Barbara’s waiting arms and hides in her small dark apartment until, inevitably, she finds Barbara’s diary and understands that she’s been a pawn in the older woman’s deluded machinations.
Barbara, it seems, has a history of these thwarted relationships with younger women, all documented in hardback journals that line her shelves, inexorably documenting a lifetime of fantasy driven by loneliness. Her last “friend” had a restraining order taken out on her when Barbara threatened her pending marriage. The schoolmaster forces Barbara to resign her post when he suggests he’ll reveal her “perversions” to the community. But his threat is unnecessary, since the press, at least in screenwriter Patrick Marber’s hands, already taunts Barbara, calling her “dyke” and insinuating that her care for Sheba is less than altruistic.
Sheba, too, when she finally understands Barbara’s self-interest, attacks the woman for her desire, asking incredulously if Barbara thought they would be lovers. Barbara begs her not to diminish their relationship with such degradations, but the point is made: it’s not Sheba’s moral vacuity that’s at issue, finally, but Barbara’s perverse longings that the film damns most resolutely.
In the typical vampire lesbian story, though, the older woman’s young “victim” is an unspoiled innocent. Although Barbara here notes Sheba’s creamy, unblemished peach complexion, she’s hardly a virgin. Sheba, in fact, is a spoiled, arrogant woman, who feels entitled to what her whims dictate. She teaches because she’s bored with keeping her home; she can’t articulate why she has the affair with the student, except to say that she wanted him. She unloads her superficial needs on Barbara, who soaks them up and twists them for her own purposes, but scenes of the two women talking in Sheba’s studio clarify that, in fact, the relationship suits Sheba, since Barbara is an attentive, apparently self-abnegating friend.
Ultimately, the film resolves its crisis quickly and predictably. Sheba returns home, where her husband takes her back wordlessly (in a scene played by Nighy and Blanchett with more nuance than any of the spoken dialogue provides) and stands beside her through her trial and sentencing (to a rather paltry 10 months in jail).
Barbara resigns her teaching post, buries her cat, and returns to the hillside aerie where she takes all her would-be paramours, only to find her next young female prey already sitting on her favorite bench. Dench’s sidelong glances at the pretty girl are full of renewed hope and rekindled desire; perhaps, in fact, this is the one.
Notes on a Scandal offers a diverting 90 minutes of watching great actors find depths in superficial, stereotypical material. But wouldn’t it be nice if such skilled women actors could apply their talents to a script that didn’t trade in tired images of female sexuality? Wouldn’t it be a boon to our imaginations if the boy with Down’s wasn’t used by the script to secure the husband’s saintliness and the wife’s martyrdom, to somehow explain and justify her extramarital dalliance? Wouldn’t it be delightful to finally drive a stake through the heart of the vampire lesbian?
I think so.
The Feminist Spectator