The ultimate pleasure of a film like Notes on a Scandal comes not from its taut story nor its chilling insight, but rather from its craft: This is character-driven cinema at its best, and because it's British, the acting is almost otherworldly.
Set in a public high school, where a harried faculty teaches the kingdom's "future plumbers, shop assistants and terrorists," the story is told to us by Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who has become untouchably venerable. She's more than simply tart and confident: She's frightening. And so when a fight breaks out between two students in the classroom of Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the attractive new art teacher, Barbara breaks it up and efficiently dresses down the two boys involved.
Sheba Hart. Barbara notices her the day she arrives. For Barbara lives in an emotional and psychological closet of the mind, where she can say whatever she wants to her dear diary, where cruelty is simply honesty, and where everything is real. She long ago turned inward -- proving Freud to be just as right as he was wrong -- and she can't engage in anything close to what we would call normal human relationships (not because she's lesbian, but because she's repressed).
Then, an opening: the fight in Sheba's classroom. This begins a friendship -- chats at school, a drink after work, and lunch at home with Sheba, her bohemian older husband (Bill Nighy), their teen-age daughter, and their 12-year-old son with Down's syndrome. It's a good start, and it gets better on the night when, at a school assembly, Barbara catches Sheba making love to Steven Connolly, a very promising young working-class artist -- and one of the boys from the classroom fight.
The slices of life that unfold after that allow Notes on a Scandal to explore several different kinds of deception and desire, although Barbara's takes center stage. Director Richard Eyre (Stage Beauty, Iris) presents it all with only the slightest touch of Grand Guignol at the end, in a sequence that might be Barbara's fantasy anyway. It's compelling -- no, thrilling -- to watch these people make mistakes and try to control one another with lies, half-truths and naïve sincerities. It's the dark side of middle-class life, beautifully distilled by the playwright Patrick Marber, adapting the novel by Zoe Heller -- who clearly knew a little something about the outer limits of secret desire -- into a lucid, articulate screenplay.
"People go on for years with partners from another planet," Barbara writes. "We want so much to have found our other." She's right, of course, just not about Sheba. And she tells us about a lifetime of unrequited desire: "The accidental touch of a bus conductor's hand sends longing straight to your groin." This is tragedy of Shakespearean proportion, albeit much more modern, and Dench's every word, gesture and glance is sublime. You almost want her to be right about everything.
Starts Fri., Jan. 26.