Remember when it seemed like Hollywood—and then telefilm-producers—made nothing but trashy thrillers with crazies obsessively stalking the objects of their affections? Imagine one of those pictures made with Oscar-bait talent and British accents. Though it sounds like a lost Saturday Night Live skit, it's actually Notes On a Scandal, an ostensibly tony drama—starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett—that's actually a campy excuse for scenery-chewing melodrama.
Adapted by playwright-screenwriter Patrick Marber (Closer) from a novel by Zoe Heller and directed by respected stage and screen talent Richard Eyre (Iris), Notes on a Scandal has powerhouse talent on its side. And its early scenes engrossingly draw us into a credible world: the mundane world of St. George's School, as seen from the mercilessly cynical viewpoint of veteran teacher Barbara Covett (Dench). Dench's severe, acidly witty narration and Marber's use of short scenes briskly moves the action forward as wily Barbara sizes up Sheba Hart (Blanchett), a nervous new art teacher.
What follows should not be described in detail, as the film's humble pleasures derive mostly from an unfolding plot. Suffice it to say that Sheba finds herself in trouble and thus vulnerable to her new friend and mentor Barbara. Their dangerous dance includes flirtations with both lesbian romance and criminal charges, as careers and Sheba's fragile marriage hang in the balance. By the time single white female Dench starts coming apart at the seams and Blanchett dolls herself up in fishnet stockings and paints her face like a whore, a viewer may fairly ask, what have I gotten myself into?
In tandem with crack cinematographer Chris Menges (Dirty Pretty Things), Eyre shoots the picture in a tastefully unassuming, deceptively sedate style, and Philip Glass provides a typically insinuating score. Dench, Blanchett, and Bill Nighy (as Blanchett's husband) may make it all more palatable than it deserves to be, but they can't put the cat back in the bag once the plot indulges outsized twists. The most credible performance comes not from the aforementioned Oscar hopefuls but fourth lead Andrew Simpson, who—as a teenage student—is the only one not encouraged to overripe extremes (though even his role suffers from a screenwritten left turn).
It's mostly due to Dench's Iaga and Blanchett's Bathsheba that obsession and delusion and secrets and lies are in play, but only in service of a rather preposterous "film nasty." Marber's script neither locates deeper meaning in the lurid story, nor goes so far overboard as openly to invite camp-classic status. Note to self: accept no British imports trying to be American trash.