The Contenders

Release: Dec. 25

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Oscar Alums: Judi Dench (supporting actress, “Shakespeare in Love”), Cate Blanchett (supporting actress, “The Aviator”), Chris Menges (cinematography, “The Mission,” “The Killing Fields”), John Bloom (editing, “Gandhi”)

Like the evil mirror image to the season’s sweeter and poignant “The History Boys,” the hot-blooded and quite wicked “Notes on a Scandal” should surprise Academy voters who expect British films to be chilly and snooty.

Another solid outing for theater helmer Richard Eyre, its explosive narrative, emotional acuity and riveting perfs could easily land it in top berths come Oscar-nomination time.

Adapted from Zoe Heller’s novel, story examines the unusual relationship between Barbara, a judgmental, spinsterish teacher (Judi Dench), and the beautiful, bohemian new art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett).

When Barbara discovers the married-with-children Sheba indulging in a shocking affair with one of her 15-year-old students, the bonds of friendship become entwined in shades of blackmail and delusion. Pic is a disturbing — and at times disturbingly funny — depiction of attachment that isn’t love, friendship that is really loneliness, and cruelty that is really sadness.

The Oscar rolls boast many award-winning turns from thesps playing teachers, from Robert Donat (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”) through Maggie Smith (“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”). They’re usually the inspiring kind, though. “Notes” plays more like a juicy psychological thriller.

As with his “Iris,” which also starred Dench, director Eyre ensures “Notes” is an acting tour de force. Kudos voters may be spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a Blanchett role to nominate this year, but it could be tempting for Acad members to recognize the brilliant interplay of subjugation and pity between Blanchett and Academy fave Dench, who is vying for actress kudos. Blanchett is being put up for the supporting actress category.

Dench in particular gets to show movie audiences more than her Queen Elizabeth/M side, offering up a perf that could remind Acad members how much fun it is to reward onscreen villainy, like Faye Dunaway in “Network” or Kathy Bates in “Misery” instead of the usual noble heroics that get actresses nominated.

Also, great supporting work from Bill Nighy as Blanchett’s cuckolded husband could lead to this beloved character actor getting his first shot at Oscar gold.

Carving out a niche for himself as a chronicler of the nasty and macabre, screenwriter Patrick Marber (“Closer,” “Asylum”) could see his blessedly tight adaptation cinch him a first Oscar nom, too. Particularly noteworthy is celebrated cinematographer Chris Menges’ vivid work, which skillfully shifts between hot and cold palettes with every twist in the tale.

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