Richard Eyre's "Notes on a Scandal" was one of the best films of 2006. If I'd seen it earlier, I'd have been delighted to put it on a Top 10 list -- or, for that matter, a Top Five. It's that good.
Its subject matter may be unsavory but it presents one of the most traditional of movie pleasures, which is watching two of the great living film actresses have at each other for 90 minutes. In this case, we're talking about 72-year-old Dame Judi Dench and 37-year-old Cate Blanchett.
For what it is, I think, it's quite nearly a perfect film. Its only flaw is a distinct oddity -- you might almost call it an excess of art. It is, in other words, too tight, too rigorous, too efficient in telling its story. When wretched situations right and left all, as they must, go kerflooey at the end, the explosions and implosions don't have enough time to resonate. None of the emotions has quite enough breathing space -- rage, misery, disappointment, contempt.
None of which will stop anyone from being mesmerized and joyful at all that self-evident talent spilling out of the screen. Though they share a British high school milieu, this thing makes "The History Boys" look positively doltish by comparison.
It's an adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel about two female teachers in a working-class school for, as Barbara, the older one says with disdain, "future plumbers."
Barbara is mean and pessimistic to the point of misanthropy. She makes the average "American Idol" judge seem like Mr. Rogers. It is her voice-over narration we hear throughout the film and it is wicked, contemptuous and mercilessly funny. Her life disappointments have long ago made her utterly toxic, but she is far too institutionalized at the school to take her freelance poisons elsewhere.
Her new younger colleague, the art teacher, is married to an older man (Bill Nighy), has a child with Down syndrome and is lean and gorgeous -- most of which has to be discovered later. At first, there is nothing but respect and distance between the two high school teachers -- "Is she a sphinx or simply stupid?" wonders her faculty's toxic avenger.
There is more than a little of the apparently harmless mentoring one might well expect. The veteran informs her simple-hearted Bohemian young colleague that "teaching is a form of crowd control" and "children are feral; don't let them sense your anxiety." Her free-form malice is tightly controlled but is also clearly full of pathological potential.
Their "friendship" develops quietly. Her younger colleague (her name is Sheba, short for Bathsheba) invites her over for funky lunch one day ("They do things differently in bourgeois Bohemia," Barbara tells us witheringly in her voice-over.)
We in the audience know that the older woman is smitten with her younger colleague in a way that is decidedly unwholesome, to put it blandly. Nothing can come of it, though, until the moment when the older woman discovers that her younger colleague has a decidedly unwholesome secret relationship of her own, a full-blown affair with one of her male students, a 15-year-old with some artistic flair and, otherwise, nothing to recommend him except that he's 15, with all that implies.
Barbara assures her colleague that the story will never come out. "Nothing will violate our magnificent complicity."
Which, of course, is a proposition from Hell just waiting to be exposed, as the malice of the older teacher -- the true predator -- and her emotional blackmail attempts escalate.
The Mary Kay Letourneau scandal is, if anything, the lesser of the two deeply poisonous relationships on display.
All of this unfolds brilliantly and excitingly. The two actresses involved -- Dench and Blanchett -- give the kind of performances for which Oscar nominations are foregone conclusions. The script, by playwright Patrick Marber ("Closer"), is a lean, mean malice machine. This is the kind of movie in which our narrator can't even mention the Bible without sneering that "Matthew is the most sentimental of the Apostles." It understands how, in fact, malice, contempt and manipulation of others course through the lifeblood of those institutionalized in places where protection of mediocrity is the Golden Rule.
When Blanchett is finally unchained and unleashed, her eruption doesn't merely rock the movie, it may well rock everything that until now you thought you knew about her talent. (Dench, on the other hand is magnificent, but what we're seeing is the full exposition of talents we've always known about.)
So, too, is Nighy exceptional as the genial, cuckolded, ultimately tormented husband.
It's a film that could only have been made in England, where theater and the BBC and Granada television have long since let verbal eloquence flourish and emotional pathology fulminate without misgivings, moralizings and fearful equivocations.
It tells its tale ruthlessly.
If only it could have made just a little more room for the echoes within after all its narrative sonic booms.
A terrific film, nonetheless.
Notes on a Scandal
Review: Four stars (out of four)
Dame Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, and Bill Nighy in Richard Eyre's adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel about two high school teachers caught up in an unrequited relationship when one of them has an affair with a male student. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.