She had begun to feel strangely detached from the proceedings. "I was sort of watching myself," she recalls. "Smiling at what a silly I was being. It was as if I had become my own rather heartless biographer."
Next, I got out the toolbox from under the sink. Eddie's tools are terribly expensive and grand. I was nearly seduced by a hand-carved mallet with an ivory handle. But I settled in the end for a small, steel axe. (Less beauty, more power.) — Zoë Heller, What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal) (2003)
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
In Notes on a Scandal, adapted by playwright Patrick Marber from Zoë Heller's witchily astute novel, Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is a 60-something history teacher at a London comprehensive school, who, if she ever had high expectations of the career in education she began nearly 35 years ago, has long since given up on them.
Barbara is now a washed-out, scrub-haired, pinch-faced martinet who doesn't confine her sharp discipline to her own classroom. In all public spaces she speaks smartingly to the multi-ethnic "pubescent proles" from the school's catchment area, whom she despises because most of them will not profit from her instruction in ways she values. Barbara also provides voice-over narration read from a diary she has kept since the 1950s and we hear her refer to the students as "future shop assistants and plumbers. And doubtless the odd terrorist too." She plays the prison wardress and is effective precisely because she harbors no illusions about the students, none.
Barbara doesn't partake of her colleagues' idealism about education in any formal way — in the movie, for instance, she refuses to write a full-scale report of how her department could be improved. Her flinty expression tells her fellow "educators" that they are incapable of altering her rock-bottom estimate of them. And sometimes she just tells them, though not in so many words. Her point is not lost, however, because she is a mistress of words (and Marber's screenplay, though theatrically compacted and slightly altered from the original, makes for a wonderful read right alongside Heller's novel). On the subject of the school, Barbara's tone is arsenical.
Apart from her beloved cat Portia, Barbara does not find satisfaction outside work, either. A repressed lesbian, she had previously befriended Jennifer Dodd, a young female colleague who responded to the attention until Barbara grew too insistent. Barbara projected a shared life with the unwitting — and heterosexual — Jennifer. After Jennifer announced her engagement, she had to threaten Barbara with an injunction to keep her at bay.