- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Few moviegoing experiences this year were as pleasurable as watching Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett go at each other in “Notes on a Scandal.”

The Oscar winners — Miss Dench for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” and Miss Blanchett for 2004’s “The Aviator” — are two of the best actresses of their respective generations, and both offer some of their most accomplished work in this literate thriller-turned-camp-melodrama, which arrives in theaters today.

Based on the acclaimed novel by Zoe Heller, “Notes on a Scandal” is told through the eyes (and diary) of Barbara Covett (Miss Dench), a history teacher at St. George’s. The boys school, located in the inner-city area of Islington in northern London, is filled with ruffians; metal detectors lie at the classrooms’ entrances. Nevertheless, the old spinster has complete control over her young charges. So when she helps new art teacher Sheba Hart (Miss Blanchett) restore some discipline to her classroom, the grateful Sheba invites Barbara to her home for Sunday lunch.

In Barbara’s mind, Sheba has it all. The upper-class woman is gorgeous and talented. However, with a husband old enough to be her father (the always-sublime Bill Nighy from “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and a son with Down syndrome, Sheba isn’t as fulfilled as she appears to be.

That might explain why she embarks on an illicit affair with a 15-year-old student. “But he’s quite mature for his age,” she defensively tells Barbara when the latter discovers the two together.

Oddly enough, Sheba isn’t the villain of this piece. Here, a teacher sleeping with her underage student is the sympathetic character. The friend who tells her she must end the affair is the truly dangerous woman.

That’s the genius of the screenplay by Patrick Marber (the writer who adapted his own play, “Closer,” into 2004’s best movie). A film can’t be quite as subtle as a novel, so Mr. Marber and director Richard Eyre (who directed Miss Dench in 2001’s “Iris”) haven’t tried. Instead, they have played up the lesbian undertones and created what likely will become a camp classic.

As the camera pans lovingly over Miss Blanchett, we know exactly what Barbara is thinking. (We almost can’t help thinking it ourselves.) The older woman may be smart and witty (“Here come the pubescent proles” she says at the start of the school year) but she’s not above using the power she has over the woman she calls her friend for her own purposes.

Philip Glass’ driving score, in a motif not dissimilar to the one he did for “The Illusionist” earlier this year, heightens the feeling of suspense. His polished work is front and center here, sometimes to overpowering effect. It seems like a purposeful effect on the part of the filmmakers. Can one have melodrama without a dramatic score?

Miss Dench always does good work, but she was particularly brave in taking on this role of the unfulfilled lesbian. She tells half the story — the inner feelings that are the real story here — using only her wickedly expressive face.

“Notes on a Scandal” tells a story in which all concerned are more than slightly creepy. Thankfully for us, they are deliciously so.

***1/2

TITLE: “Notes on a Scandal”

RATING: R (Language and some aberrant sexual content)

CREDITS: Directed by Richard Eyre. Screenplay by Patrick Marber based on the novel by Zoe Heller.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: www.foxsearchlight.com/NOAS

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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