It was beginning to look as if Judi Dench could pick up an Oscar nomination simply by appearing on screen and uttering a few words in that beautifully clipped English accent of hers. And maybe she could. But Notes on a Scandal, in which she plays a secondary-school teacher so desperate for some female companionship that she's become slightly unhinged, won't prove any such theories. Here, Dame Judi's been handed a role she could really sink her teeth into, and when she's through there are bite marks all over the screen. She doesn't overact; that's not her style. But she does some ferocious underacting, letting her facial muscles tighten into a mask. And that voice! It seems laced with acid, a cobra's tongue-flicking hiss.
Based on ZoÃ Heller's 2003 novel, Notes on a Scandal is a nasty piece of work, and I mean that in the best way. Hitchcock is a touchstone. And so is Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the book that The Talented Mr. Ripley was based on. Once again, repressed desire curdles into madness, but few would consider Dench's Barbara Covett insane, not without reading her diary, which she shares with us in voice-over narration. These running commentaries on life's passing parade are mini-masterpieces of acerbic wit, and Dench squeezes every last drop of bile out of them. But to innocent bystanders, Barbara just seems like one of those spinster types who invest all their emotions in their cats. Then Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) shows up at St. George's School, in north London.
A blond beauty whose pillowy softness leaves everybody a little weak in the knees, Sheba's the new art teacher, and at first it's difficult to tell what Barbara thinks about her. Then those eyes imperceptibly narrow, like a Venus's-flytrap. But how to catch the fly without getting caught herself? That's the challenge; and Barbara, in taking it on, employs the patience of Job and the cunning of Iago. Invited to Sheba's house for dinner, she meets Sheba's husband, an aging academic played by Bill Nighy, and soaks up the atmosphere ' 'bourgeois bohemia,' as she sniffily records. Class resentment will play a role in her love/hate relationship with a woman who doesn't know she's being stalked by a panther. But when to pounce? And how to avoid seeming to pounce?
Finally, Sheba slips up, entering into an illicit affair with one of her students, a 15-year-old kid (Andrew Simpson) who's also been on the prowl. Heller's novel, whose title includes the words What Was She Thinking?, does attempt to understand why a grown woman would risk everything for some private tutorials ' shades of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Oregon schoolteacher who served seven years in prison for having sex with one of her students, then married him soon after she was released. But the movie doesn't really get inside Sheba's head. She's a victim, not a tragic heroine. And although Blanchett tries to endow her with an inner life, she remains rather vague, which may be the point. Only someone who's floating through life could drift into Barbara's clutches.
Director Richard Eyre has done a nice job of letting Barbara be Barbara, allowing her to read extensively from those diaries. That isn't a very cinematic thing to do, but it does make us privy to her thoughts and takes us deeper and deeper inside her warped mind. Eyre made only one mistake: allowing Philip Glass' score to dominate the proceedings. Early on, the rumblings in the bass evoke the work that Bernard Herrmann did for Hitchcock. But the emotional turmoil is too blatant. Glass might have taken a cue from Barbara, who, if she had one, would never wear her heart on her sleeve. She'd dole it out, one drop of blood at a time. And what's so impressive about Dench's performance is its utter precision, the carefully calibrated mixture of fire and ice.