Few pleasures are sharper than watching a pair of great movie actors duel it out for honors. In "Notes on a Scandal," Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett are having a high old time. So are we.
I don't wish to imply that the movie is a showpiece for scenery chewers. Both actresses are smart enough to know that underplaying can be much more effective than overplaying. They also know that the most important thing in acting is emotional truth.
"Notes on a Scandal" is, among other good things, a demonstration of acting styles. Dench is playing Barbara Covett, a bitter, spinsterish teacher in a state-run secondary school in London. Blanchett is Sheba Hart, the school's new art teacher. She is happily married, with two offspring, to Richard (a terrific Bill Nighy), a much older man.
In temperament, both women could not be more unalike, and yet Barbara, whose narration from her private journal is heard throughout much of the movie, believes she has found in the bohemian Sheba the perfect soul mate.
It takes a while to realize that Barbara's attentions are more than friendly and that Sheba is more than a free spirit. The turning point comes when Sheba, against all reason, has an affair with one of her students, a working-class 15-year-old who looks like a surly choirboy. Barbara spots them having sex and threatens, in the most silky and understated way, to expose her.
"Notes on a Scandal" was originally a novel by Zoë Heller, published in this country as "What Was She Thinking?" Director Richard Eyre ("Iris") and screenwriter Patrick Marber ("Closer") have made a fluid transition to the screen. Whereas the novel is told entirely from Barbara's point of view, the movie begins that way and then shifts to Sheba's and then back and forth again. This allows for a wider range of sympathies.
When we see Sheba and her husband living it up at home with their pouty daughter and Down Syndrome-afflicted son, we understand why the loss of them will be her ruination. Why does she risk it all for a fling with a minor? The filmmakers are wise enough to avoid any Psych 101 explanations. Sheba – as in Bathsheba – is probably the last to know why.
Meanwhile, Barbara Covett's covetousness turns ugly. Dench captures how this woman's dotingness shades into mania. Her progression could have been the stuff of cheap thrills, but Dench gives it so much psychological verity that you never once feel coarsened by the spectacle. The horror of who she is dawns on us at about the same time as it dawns on Sheba.
Blanchett has also recently appeared in "The Good German" and "Babel," but this represents far and away her best work. She is as fluid here as Dench is brittle, and her own descent into mania has a trancelike believability. At times I was a bit uncomfortable with the notion that Sheba is being held up as a poster girl for the depredations of bohemia. There's something punitive in the filmmaker's, and Heller's, approach to her – or there would be, if not for Blanchett's all-embracing portrayal.
"Notes on a Scandal" takes a lurching, unconvincing turn near the end, and Philip Glass's score is so at odds with the movie's tricky tone that he seems to be declaring war on it. Aside from these detractions I offer only high praise. This is a thinking person's psychological thriller. Grade: A
• Rated R for language and some aberrant sexual content.
Sex/Nudity: 10 innuendos and frank conversation, 4 sex scenes involving a minor. Violence: 3. Profanity: 26. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 15.