‘Notes on a Scandal’ examines a dangerous love triangle
Dame Judi Dench plays a closeted and confused lesbian
by Lawrence Ferber
Cate Blanchett (left) and Judi Dench in a scene from ‘Notes on a Scandal.’ Photo: Giles Keyte
There are worse things to go cuckoo for than Cocoa Puffs. For example, an underage schoolboy, as Cate Blanchett’s character does in the stunning new film “Notes on a Scandal.” Yet it’s Dame Judi Dench who goes even more cuckoo — and is far more sublime, crafty and duplicitous about it than that unhinged Sonny the Cuckoo bird — for Cate Blanchett.
Adapted from Zoe Heller’s 2003 novel by screenwriter Patrick Marber (“Closer”) and director Richard Eyre (“Iris”), “Notes on a Scandal” sees Barbara Covett (Dench), an insular, spinstery British high school teacher, become fixated on a new, younger colleague, Sheba (Blanchett). Insanely jealous and venomous towards Sheba’s family, which includes a much older husband (Bill Nighy), Barbara learns that Sheba is having a torrid sexual affair with a 15-year-old pupil, Steven (Andrew Simpson), and uses this information to ingratiate herself as de facto best friend and confidant. But this isn’t enough — she wants Sheba entirely to herself, which leads to some very messy and dangerous actions and consequences.
Dench’s performance is so complex and layered with subtexts and ambiguities that she elevates the character beyond the evil repressed lesbian stereotype Barbara may appear to represent (there have been a few matrons/teachers-gone-wrong surfacing recently, including Patricia Clarkson’s headmistress in the 2006 DVD release “The Woods” and Jacqueline Bisset in the upcoming “The Fine Art of Love: Mine Ha-Ha”).
“I think in a lesser actress’s hands those definitions could be leveled,” says Blanchett, “but in the hands of Dame Judi Dench she’s able to unlock this ache in the woman so you access the loneliness. You see what makes her tick.”
Judi Dench plays Barbara Covett, a lesbian so deep in the closet she’s in total self-denial. Photo: Clive Coote
Interestingly, novelist Zoe Heller’s father was screenwriter Lukas Heller, whose credits include “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and “The Killing of Sister George” (the latter being one of the most cited examples of negative lesbian depictions onscreen). The London-based Marber emailed the NY-based Heller frequently while adapting the novel, which was written from Barbara’s standpoint á la a diary. Marber’s screenplay, Eyre’s direction and movie cameras added a level of visual objectivity to the goings-ons — and, by virtue of that, a more overtly lesbian edge to Barbara.
“My job as a filmmaker was to make it clear to the audience that Barbara is a lesbian,” Eyre emphasizes, “while also conveying that she doesn’t understand this about herself and therefore does not identify herself as one.”
In both the novel and film, it’s revealed that Barbara had at least one previous obsession that ended very badly. And Barbara’s own sister seems to have surmised and accepted her sibling as being a lesbian, saying as much out loud in one scene. Yet Barbara herself has buried the idea that her feelings for women are other but platonic so deeply that she acts repulsed by the notion that she’s not only a lesbian, but goes about her pursuits in manipulative, scheming ways.
“One of the things that seems to me so sad and melancholy about Barbara,” Eyre opines, “is she would be horrified if you said, ‘you’re a predatory lesbian.’ She’d say, ‘I’m simply trying to make friends.’ This is a woman who is so chronically in self-denial that she’s telling these appalling lies to herself and making herself believe them. Why doesn’t she come out? She can’t come out! That’s her tragedy! And it’s the genius of Judi that she makes you care about this woman, to pity her, at the same time as you’re absolutely appalled by her.”
Marber feels that Barbara’s stunted sexuality was probably formed — and deformed — during her school days. “I suppose I always thought she was one of those girls at school who has fixations on people but was too nervous to do anything about it,” he says. “One of those people who has all her life never been popular. And then she finds her role in life as a teacher and I don’t think she’s a good teacher, either. I think she’s a lousy teacher. And every year finds some new teacher to fixate on. Had Barbara been played by an actress in her 50s it would have been harder to believe she was an asexual being. But we always wanted Judi.”
The most overt, physically sexual gesture Barbara makes is when she strokes Sheba’s arms to comfort her — a scene that made the actresses also speculate upon Barbara’s adolescent connections with another girl and “the boarding school slumber party quality to it,” Blanchett shares. “But I don’t think those sexual definitions [of lesbian] would even have entered Barbara’s frame of reference. You’re talking about somebody who lives in a basement flat by herself and probably never had a relationship with anyone. I doubt she’s ever been naked in a bed with a woman or consummated [her sexuality]. It’s much more about her wanting to possess Sheba.”
Yet Barbara isn’t the only one engaging in monstrous behavior, as Marber points out. “It’s a film about two obsessive love affairs both destined for disaster,” he says. “Barbara’s love for Sheba, Sheba’s love for Steven. Poor Sheba!”
Sheba crosses numerous lines by committing adultery with an underage pupil, sometimes even in a backyard shack that her own bedroom (and husband) overlooks. “I think anyone who enters any damaging relationship, and certainly a relationship with an underage boy, it’s an enormous cry for help,” Blanchett says. “She wreaks enormous damage but was enormously damaged herself.”
Blanchett feels that Sheba undergoes an early midlife crisis in the film: having married her former professor and thus deprived herself of youthful dalliances, and possibly given little intimate attention in recent years, she “revisits her lost adolescence” through an affair with the admittedly seductive, aggressive and clever Steven. Yet while grasping Sheba’s motivations, Blanchett found embodying her, and her actions, to be “probably the most difficult thing I ever had to do morally.”
“I think I pride myself on not forming a judgment on the character,” she shares. “I just present them warts and all. But I was overwhelmed by my own moral judgment of Sheba’s actions and really had to step back and liberate her from that. The damage wrought by Sheba’s actions is not up for question. What she does is unspeakable. But it’s not a court case. Those are the conversations for an audience to have. It’s a dramatic work and blackly comic, too. You don’t want to make that too simplistic.”