Hence, Notes on a Scandal is a highbrow guilty pleasure, based on a novel by Zoe Heller, with a witty screenplay by Patrick Marber (of Closer fame) and well directed by Richard Eyre.
It doesn't quite work for a number of reasons, which I will go into later, but the reason to see it is for Cate Blanchett, who will be Judi Dench when she grows up, and Judi Dench herself, who is our age's Sarah Bernhardt. And then there is Bill Nighy, whom we adore.
I know we are all tired of Dame Judi getting nominated every year. We are tired of the Judi Dench drill. I am even more tired of the Clint Eastwood drill, because Dame Judi is talented, whereas El Clinto is unjustly overrated. However, this is one performance of La Dench that truly deserves a nomination. I'm still rooting for Helen Mirren (Judi would have been equally as splendid as Elizabeth II, if she weren't tired of playing every single Queen of England in every movie, always).
Dench is freaking scary. Her level of actorly proficiency is truly frightening. She is also quite fearless. She uses her scariness and and her fearlessness to chilling effect as Barbara, an embittered spinster teacher in a bad public school in London.
You take one look at Barbara, with her greasy bad perm and her pursed lips and you know bile courses through her veins. It certainly oozes from her mouth and her innermost thoughts. What a delight to listen to such articulate nastiness! One of the problems I have with the movie is that it gives away her badness from the very beginning, which makes it hard to believe that Blanchett, who becomes her victim, would be so naive as not to notice that this woman is a dangerous harpy. However, one forgives a lot because the dialogue is deliciously sardonic, and extremely literate, and since a lot of it is rendered by Dame Judi in a voiceover, you just let yourself listen to the way she inveighs a word like "invent" (as in "he did not invent it") with what would amount to polonium-210 in the physical world.
There are a couple of willful-suspension-of-disbelief moments in this movie which almost ruined it for me. However, as we live mired in Hollywoodland where characters are usually one-dimensional, and female characters are virtually non-existent, it was refreshing to see two complicated characters that were not easily explained. Barbara, as all good sociopaths, has a vulnerable side. Like the Lieutenant of Inishmore, she loves her cats more than her people, yet her loneliness makes her vulnerable to love. Her scariness is a hoot, her intelligence is amazing, but her quiet moments of devotion are why Dame Judi kicks major, incredible butt. La Blanchett, meanwhile, shows her very considerable chops by not even attempting to outperform her colleague, and she turns in a careful, utterly believable and realistic portrayal of a conflicted, bored woman, a woman sheltered by a life of privilege. Because, you must know that this being a British movie, it is about class. And class is what the Brits do superduper-well.
So while the contrivances of the movie take it a bit into the realm of "I'm not quite buying this", the artistry and truthfulness of the performances keep it firmly anchored in reality. Plus, it is thoroughly enjoyable.
Note on Phillip Glass scores: every movie nowadays seems to have one. They all seem to sound the same. It is getting to be almost self-parodic. The score for this movie is gorgeous and it works (the critics disagree with me on this one), but it is distracting, because it is so Phillip Glassiesque.