Dench, Blanchett shine in 'Notes on a Scandal'

Published: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 12:12 a.m.


Notes on a Scandal

STARS: Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench
THEATER: Butler Plaza

It's hard to go wrong when you match up two of the world's finest film actresses on opposite sides of a twisted psychological drama about a lonely, looney spinster preying on the soul mate she thinks she's finally found.
"Notes on a Scandal" is the pure-class take on "Single White Female," allowing Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett to melt into their roles as London teachers whose friendship carries a dangerous underpinning.
Not to take anything away from the work of director Richard Eyre ("Stage Beauty," "Iris"), who maintains intense momentum throughout, but Dench and Blanchett are such pros and know their characters so well, this is almost a point-and-shoot movie. Turn the camera on the actresses and let them go to town.
Adapted by screenwriter Patrick Marber from Zoe Heller's novel "What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal," the film centers on desperately lonesome Barbara Covett (Dench), a stern, churlish teacher who lives alone with her only friend, her cat.
That changes when new art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett), nervous at being back to work after years of raising a family with her husband (Bill Nighy), joins the staff at Barbara's public school.
Barbara thinks she's found a kindred spirit, but the budding attachment between her and Sheba is more sinister and manufactured than any organic friendship between co-workers.
Turns out Barbara has a history of fixating on - and even stalking - the objects of her affection. When she discovers Sheba's terrible secret - an affair with one of her teenage students (Andrew Simpson) - Barbara uses her expertise at manipulation to try to extort a lifelong commitment of devotion from her unsuspecting pal.
What follows is a descent into a sad, sick and dangerous mind as Barbara caresses, coaxes and cajoles the somewhat flighty and passive Sheba toward becoming the sort of companion she wants.
"Notes on a Scandal" is at its best when Dench and Blanchett are on screen together, so the movie inevitably loses some punch once their relationship gradually sours amid Sheba's suspicions that all is not right inside Barbara's head. It's a grand thing to watch these two Academy Award winners, who are now back in Oscar contention with this film, have at each other.
Though her character's motivations are a bit forced, Blanchett is a marvel of frustration and self-doubt as she embodies the deep insecurities Sheba carries around.
We're accustomed to seeing Dench commandeer films with glorious arrogance, yet here she's found a new and subtler way to dominate. Dench's Barbara is that most dangerous of predators, the sort who's unaware she's a predator, approaching with an open hand and tentative smile, thinking she's doing a favor by befriending her victim. In the end, "Notes on a Scandal" is a one-note story - but Dench and Blanchett ring every bit of drama out of it they can.

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