The plot revolves around the predatory sexual pursuits of an aging lesbian teacher (Judi Dench), working in a typically conservative British school. She sets her eyes on the new employee, a younger burgeois woman (Cate Blanchett) trapped in a boring marriage. When the new girl starts an affair with one of her underage students, the lesbian teacher sees an ideal opportunity to alleviate her loneliness.
Judy Dench plays her character as a cross between a feminist activist and a male chauvinist. The genius of Dench is that she never hesitates to show the teacher’s desperate malevolence. No amount of feminism can explain her frustration, or the obsessive demand for love that it triggers. Yet simultaneously, Dench lets you feel just how much the teacher’s intelligence make her an outsider in the men’s power games. This ambiguous representation strongly contrasts equal work by actresses like Glenn Close. Her enraged woman in FATAL ATTRACTION was a one-dimensional monster than Dench’s performance in NOTES ON A SCANDAL exceeds on countless levels.
Cate Blanchett is very good in the role of the younger woman. There’s something special about the actress’s fox-like face. Already in THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY, she exuded a mixture of Snowy White innocence and kink that begs for transgressive roles. Blanchett is just right as she tries to escape the clutches of the class society by sleeping with her students, only to end up undergoing heterosexual ”adjustment” in prison. Meanwhile, Dench chooses the queer path of continuing her predatory pursuits regardless of societal judgement. And on some level you feel her choice is more courageous than Blanchett’s.
You can excuse both women’s shenanigans as a result of male repression, but you can’t really forgive them for what they do to each other. When Blanchett refuses her advances, Dench acts as an evil matriarch, revealing the girl’s transgressions to the public as well as compromising her marriage by trapping Blanchett in a co-dependent relationship. She doesn’t do it in an open confrontation, as a man would, and her goal is not to punish the Blanchett, but to own her forever. Though brutal and unpleasant, the men in this movie aren’t nearly as dangerous as the women.