You’ll never look at gold stars the same. Judi Dench’s stinging lesbian persona in “Notes On A Scandal” likes to put one of those shiny stickers in her journal every time something goes her way. Barbara Covett (Dench) is cloaked in a fierce facade, carved as an authoritative figure that no one dares to overstep – not her students, not the women she eyes.
But what happens when they do?
When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) first arrives at London’s St. George School she’s meticulously examined like an aspiring model by Covett, a biting 60-something teacher who can control her class with a simple stare. Gorgeous and upper-class, Sheba is married to an older gent (Bill Nighy) and together they have two children, one with Down syndrome. In Sheba’s spare time, she’s making whoopee with her 15-year-old student. When Barbara catches them, the even more vulnerable Sheba settles with the elder’s agreement to keep it quiet, thereby tying the two together through a shared secrecy. She orders Sheba to end the affair. But once Sheba lapses into her cradle-robbing ways, Barbara’s offer spirals into a creepy-psycho obsession as she expects the young bohemian to ditch her family for a future with the fire-breathing dragon.
Though remarkably similar in tone to “The Hours,” Philip Glass’ nail-biting score adds edge to the swiftly paced film while Richard Eyre’s direction churns out two of last year’s finest acting tour de forces.
Simply dashing, Dench swallows every ounce of the nut-job wacko. Her chilling performance spews sarcastic wit that would put most comedians to shame. From the gripping stare to the freakish gold star journal days, Dench’s fiery character is ripe and as arresting as a highway car accident. Her cynical narration, courtesy of a clever script by playwright Patrick Marber (“Closer”) that’s based on the Zoe Heller book, is especially golden as the lonely villain obsesses over Sheba’s heavenly looks, noting the purity of her voice is “as if she’d never had a filling” and comparing her complexion to a white peach. “She’s worth it, this one. She’s the one I’ve waited for,” Barbara insists.
Blanchett has never been more exposed, so to speak, in a more restrained role as a woman uncertain of herself, her motive for the underage affair and her ties to Barbara. Her confusion becomes ours, as some questions aren’t explored fully in the film. But that barely mars “Notes On A Scandal.” It’s a scrumptious act-feast filled with highly-flavored leads (both Dench and Blanchett were nominated for an Oscar) who draw us into a delicious game of cat and mouse.
The leading ladies are given more coverage on the DVD’s special features, which dip deeper into their roles in the film. The solid 12-minute feature “The Story Of Two Obsessions” meshes interviews from the crew, including Eyre’s perspective on the paralleling obsessions and Heller’s inspiration for the novel. A more-glammed Dench and Blanchett provide insight into their characters’ lonliness and motives, which makes the crew-gushing “Behind The Scenes,” which focuses a bit more on the actors, and the super-short “In Character: Cate Blanchett” throwaway features.
Notes On A Scandal
Starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett
Available on DVD April 17