Early on in the new film Notes on a Scandal, aging British schoolteacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) looks down through a high-school window to watch dozens of young students pouring into the school yard. We see her from the vantage point of someone standing on the ground; her face is small and somewhat obscured by the glass, but the look of disdain on her face is clear.
It is an image that calls to mind the sinister Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, at once trapped inside, yearning to be free, yet dismissive of the outside world. Barbara Covett peering through the window — like Mrs. Danvers, longing for her dead mistress — is symbolic of the madwoman in the attic, a metaphor that has long carried with it the heavy baggage of misogyny, mental illness and sexual repression. Amid these familiar storytelling tropes is the obvious elephant in the room: Barbara Covett is a closeted lesbian.
She is so closeted that even she does not admit to herself that she is a lesbian, although her relatives and her co-workers all seem to know that she is one; indeed, they ask after “Jennifer,” a woman whom Barbara previously presented to her family as her “companion.” But Jennifer, Barbara tells them with studied carelessness, has married and moved away. There is a new woman in Barbara's life: Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the school's new art teacher.
Barbara immediately befriends Sheba, who is flighty and girlish and beautiful, and their relationship is never fully believable — until Barbara discovers Sheba having an affair with a 15-year-old male student, and threatens to reveal all to the school authorities. Now, there is a reason for them to be “friends”: Barbara could ruin Sheba at any moment.
The film is based on Zoe Heller's critically acclaimed novel, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal (2003), which is written entirely from the perspective of Barbara, who keeps journals recording every moment of her relationship with Sheba. Barbara is critical and bitter, and judges everything and everyone she can in the pages of her notebooks.
In the film, Dench translates Barbara's cruelty and neediness from the page and into a grasping, emotionally stunted, withered woman who gazes with obsessive yearning at the young and vibrant Sheba, who is all physical passion and momentary delight. Barbara takes advantage of Sheba's weakness without apparent guilt or remorse.
Her obsession is not based on any real physical passion — she recoils at the accusation, late in the film, that she might desire Sheba sexually — but rather it seems to be based on a deep emotional void. She wants Sheba to fill it, and she won't take no for an answer. This is always the root of the lesbian stalker in film: emotional desire, not necessarily physical. That desire remains unspeakable, thereby underscoring the perversity of lesbianism.