With its breakneck pace, powerhouse leading ladies and Brit-hip cred, you'd think Notes on a Scandal would be giving off a fresher, more cosmopolitan odor than the sour funk of its post-dated sexual politics.
Indeed, the film's suspense-generating thrills aren't to be denied, thanks to Richard Eyre's direction and British stage sensation Patrick Marber's adaptation of Zoe Heller's critically acclaimed novel. But beneath its slick surface, the film is a Cool Britannia spin on the classic vengeful bitch thriller Fatal Attraction, about an adulteress who, in this case, finds her domestic life with husband and children threatened by a demented, scorned woman.
Dressed in dowdy A-line skirts, her face untouched by the softening ministrations of makeup or a smile, an intoxicatingly vicious Judi Dench tears a glorious path through the opening of Notes on a Scandal as acid-tongued, burned-out London secondary schoolteacher Barbara Covett. Exhausted by PC politics as an ineffective coping strategy for her out-of-control student body, Barbara watches the morning arrival of the "pubescent proles" she teaches like a regal monarch surveying the barbarians at the gate.
Barbara is no less disgusted by her coworkers who look cowed and fearful when near her, as if they've been previously scorched by Barbara's blistering scorn. She is ready to write off the new art teacher, a fey, blonde "bourgeois bohemian" Sheba Hart (Blanchett) as another hippy-dippy do-gooder. While the world speaks sanctimoniously about lifting up the lower classes, Barbara's long career in the trenches has made her brutally pragmatic about an inner-city schoolteacher's real mission: breaking up fist fights and equipping students with the basics for their futures as shop clerks and trades people.
The two women form an unlikely alliance, a friendship that takes on a perverse character when Barbara discovers Sheba is sleeping with one of her 15-year-old pupils. A creepy power balance is forged, as Sheba becomes bottom to Barbara's top. Sheba is anxious to please and ingratiate lest the older woman -- a kind of Linda Tripp exploiting her younger colleague for personal gain -- reveal her dirty secret. And Barbara's secret? Apparently she's a repressed lesbian who's made a habit of sucking the juices out of younger women.
Eventually, Barbara's toxic worldview gets its comeuppance, as a film that luxuriates in her misanthropy turns its fury her way. The gloriously cathartic thrill of hearing Barbara's off-the-leash female rage voiced through the highly unusual agent of a middle-aged woman gives way to the film's thriller mechanics and the sorriest Hollywood formula of the beautiful victim, Sheba, fending off the frightening advances of an unhinged beast.
As the drama progresses, Dench's performance remains captivating even as it degenerates into monstrosity. Her eyeballs seem to retreat farther into her skull, until they are two small, glittering coals burning with rage and revenge sunken into her bloodless face.
Part of Barbara's scurrilous slant on things is undoubtedly the fact that she is an older gay woman in a straight world -- an automatic outsider. But she's also miserably lonely. Unfortunately, that particular source of her rage is left relatively unexamined.
Instead, the film emphasizes her predatory dimension, from the basement-level apartment where she dwells while Sheba lives high above the grimy streetscape in a gleaming white townhouse, to Barbara's "pathetic" companionship with a cat while Sheba is surrounded by a buzz of family and activity.
Everything the women have in common -- including their shared, desperate clutching at youth -- is chucked aside for the larger mission of presenting Barbara's sexuality as a kind of pathology.
"You bitter old virgin," Sheba hisses at this woman without family or "normal" sex life to redeem her.
Notes on a Scandal is the guiltiest of pleasures, a rousing, bracing slick entertainment that you feel like a creep for enjoying.