Notes on a Scandal (15)

Women beware women
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Iconfess my suspicions were aroused at the start of Notes on a Scandal. Dame Judi Dench, a decorous voice-over, a bench on Parliament Hill: this was going to be another polite British prestige number. But Richard Eyre's adaptation of the Zoë Heller novel soon proves to be a much spikier proposition - not remotely decorous, even if it is a story of North London middle-class adultery.

Dench plays Barbara Covett, a solitary woman who teaches history in a comprehensive and who regards her pupils and colleagues alike, indeed pretty much the entire world, with withering scorn. When her enthusiastic bureaucrat of a head teacher (a brisk, Blairish Michael Maloney) calls for his staff's written reports, Barbara icily hands him a mere half-page dripping with lofty contempt - a nice irony given that, in private, she's prone to compulsive graphomania, recording every detail of her life in the diary that provides the film's voice-over commentary.

When a new art teacher joins the school - glamorous, dizzy, overgrown waif Sheba (Cate Blanchett) - Barbara wonders, "Is she a sphinx or simply stupid?" Sheba is certainly out of her depth, and needs to be rescued by Barbara when she fails to subdue a classroom tussle. This wins Barbara her garrulous colleague's confidence, which comes as manna to a woman who's been doggedly enduring "long-haul solitude". Barbara now has a friend - or rather, someone whom she feels she owns. It's when she feels she's lost control of Sheba, discovering the one secret her protégée has chosen not to share, that things turn nasty.

The story is ostensibly about the scandal of the title - Sheba's illicit relationship with a 15-year-old pupil - but it's the notes on it that are just as important. Sustaining Barbara's voice-over throughout the film might have yielded pedestrian results, but it's actually daring of Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber to stick with this device. The classic literary device of the "unreliable narrator" isn't a natural fit with cinema, but this film pulls it off, making us measure events against Barbara's often callous, sometimes entirely deluded conception of them. Dench's voice-over evokes the self-congratulatory bile of a wit gone rancid with its own superiority.

Dench's Barbara is a kaleidoscope of traits - repression, vulnerability, resentment, cruelty, need and, running beneath it all, the sort of blindness that mistakes itself for perfect self-knowledge. With less skilful handling, Barbara could have come across as a one-note monster, and the film as a generic stalking story, a Kentish Town Single White Female. That it doesn't is down to an intelligently slippery script, and to Dench's quicksilver playing, which can slip between moods within a single look. If Dench has become a cosily reassuring presence in British film of late, here she burns that bridge magnificently, making Barbara's mind an acutely uncomfortable place to visit. It's a performance without any vanity, given how acutely Chris Menges's photography captures the nuances of Dench's facial performances.

One of the film's key observations is about social pretence and the wearing of masks; it's an essay on acting, in fact, and it has some terrific performances to body it out. Blanchett plays a role just as complex as Dench's: Sheba is a confused, spoilt sensualist, disappointed by what seems a near-perfect life, unable to leave behind her youth (she clings to her Siouxsie albums and memories of New Romantic make-up). She's also a terrible betrayer of her older husband (Bill Nighy), less in the adultery itself, perhaps, than in the single awful moment when, with a moment's hesitation, she tells her young lover that the man he's just glimpsed at her front door is "an uncle".

Andrew Simpson makes an equally ambivalent show as Sheba's cocksure young lover, and Phil Davis, seemingly left to languish in a minor role, suddenly steps forward in a scene of knife-twisting pathos. Bill Nighy watchers eventually get to see him blow his top, explosively and very affectingly, in a confrontation scene: it's well worth the wait, and Barbara certainly thinks so, as she watches at close quarters, relishing the "opera".

Notes on a Scandal is perhaps less of an opera than a modern-day Jacobean tragedy, in which destructive emotions bring the entire world tumbling down. At moments, though, the film skates close to a fossilised stereotype, that of the frustrated elderly lesbian. Certainly, an intrusive close-up of Sheba's cleavage from Barbara's point of view seems an error of judgement, and terribly reductive: the story is less about Barbara's physical desire than about the damaging effects of solitude. But it takes a performance as subtly limned as Dench's to bring that complexity out to full effect.

Some friends who swear by Zoë Heller's novel, which I haven't read, felt aggrieved by the film's different ending. Eyre and Marber's conclusion certainly offers a touch of emotional reassurance, and the flat truth is, the conventions of British cinema (and cinema funding) dictate that audiences can't be left feeling too blasted. Still, within the film's terms, this ending feels coherent, sour-sweet (if slightly glib) coda and all. Notes on a Scandal is as intelligent and accomplished a film as British mainstream cinema currently has to offer - no doubt as slyly manipulative as its central character, but certainly never cosy.