Five years after their sensitive collaboration on “Iris,” Richard Eyre guides Judi Dench to another pitch-perfect performance — make that bitch-perfect — in “Notes on a Scandal,” a deviously entertaining account of one woman’s indiscretions as related by a not-so-disinterested third party. If the results suggest a crafty British spin on the Mary Kay Letourneau saga, the riveting interplay between Dench and Cate Blanchett draws blood with every scene, thanks to a precision-honed script and Eyre’s equally incisive direction. Dazzling star combo and appreciative reviews will prove especially enticing to older, literate audiences, yielding solid specialized returns for the Fox Searchlight pic.
Zoe Heller’s compelling 2003 novel unraveled the sordid tale of a schoolteacher’s affair with one of her young pupils, taking the form of a coolly perceptive and bitingly funny diary written by a close friend. The book’s subversive achievement was to project the diarist’s own gaze back upon herself, turning a salacious tabloid tale into a subtle and revelatory act of confession.
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What Heller achieved through tricky literary technique, Eyre and scribe Patrick Marber (“Closer”) have inevitably rendered more explicitly, playing up the obsessive lesbian-stalker angle with a discreet nod in the direction of “Fatal Attraction.” What makes “Notes on a Scandal” more than just a Lifetime-ready psychothriller — as well as a satisfyingly nasty awards-season tonic — is the ruthless economy of its execution from start to finish.
From the outset, Dench’s acerbic narration gives voice to the innermost thoughts of London schoolteacher Barbara Covett, a lonely spinster who reserves her bitter judgments of the world solely for her private journal and, by extension, the viewer. A juicy atmosphere of collusion thus established, Barbara begins to take an interest in Sheba Hart (Blanchett), the svelte, good-natured and very attractive woman who has just joined the faculty as an art teacher (and whose name is, not coincidentally, short for Bathsheba).
The two women become friends after Barbara gives the inexperienced Sheba a crash course in student discipline; in turn, Barbara is invited to lunch with Sheba, her significantly older husband Richard (a terrifically boisterous Bill Nighy), moody teenage daughter Polly (Juno Temple) and Down syndrome son Ben (Max Lewis).
With Barbara providing acid commentary on every detail, the film etches a fine-grained portrait of the Harts’ bustling bourgeois lifestyle, with Blanchett ably conveying Sheba’s love for her family as well as the quiet dissatisfaction of a woman who married too young and began her career too late.
Sheba’s discontent becomes clear when Barbara peeks into her classroom after hours and spies the woman in a compromising position with one of her students, working-class Irish youth Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson, unnervingly blurring the line between schoolboy innocence and sexual menace). Plot point reps a departure from the novel that makes Barbara a much more overtly malevolent figure, as the seeds of manipulation hinted at in the book become a full-throttle portrait of emotional blackmail.
Immediately, Barbara confronts Sheba, who, in a series of flashbacks, tearfully confesses the romantic entanglement that began with private tutorial sessions and culminated in messy trysts near the railroad tracks. Realizing the power she wields over her “friend,” Barbara agrees to keep the affair a secret, though it’s clear from her insinuating, creepily intimate manner that Sheba is still on thin ice.
Bravura sequence reps an impressively cinematic weave and shows an unfussy command of the material, from Marber’s intensely focused adaptation — much of the dialogue lifted from Heller’s book, but pared down without losing its bite or character nuances — to John Bloom and Antonia Van Drimmelen’s tight editing and the sinister, weblike repetitions of Philip Glass’ score.
But “Notes on a Scandal” is first and foremost an actors’ showcase, and Dench rises ferociously to the occasion with her juiciest, most substantial performance since “Iris” and arguably “Mrs. Brown.” Using her frumpy, diminutive stature as a weapon, Dench’s Barbara invites the viewer (like Sheba) to pity her loneliness, so it registers as a genuine shock when she exposes the borderline-psychotic levels of neediness underneath.
Worlds away from her work in this year’s “Babel” and “The Good German,” Blanchett convinces utterly as the willowy, self-destructive Sheba. Thesp manages the tricky task of portraying the woman’s actions as foolish and reckless while commanding one’s sympathy, even understanding.
Eyre’s veteran legit experience shows in a few scenes that barely steer clear of histrionics, particularly in the later going. But he doesn’t hold back during the inevitable showdown between Dench and Blanchett, who happily pull out all the stops in a climactic scene that could have been even longer. Denouement strikes an abrupt but fitting note of muted creepiness.
Though not a period piece like Eyre’s “Iris” and “Stage Beauty,” pic’s workaday settings have been outfitted with extreme care, from Tim Hatley’s costumes to Caroline Smith’s sets. Chris Menges’ vibrant lensing generates a palpable heat, perfectly in keeping with the emotions roiling beneath this superbly executed thriller.