This bitter brew of English bile, adapted by playwright Patrick Marber from Zoe Heller's acclaimed novel, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal and directed by Richard Eyre, is first and foremost a showcase for bitch-perfect performances by Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Or perhaps that's Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench: They're so perfectly matched that it's impossible to put one before the other.
History teacher Barbara Covett (Dench) is the embodiment of the bitter old English schoolmarm, sturdily efficient, utterly contemptuous of authority — because who, after all, knows better than she — and ruthlessly pragmatic about her lower-class middle-school charges, a sorry lot of dullards, borderline delinquents and future cogs in the dreary blue-collar machine. Barbara is proper, respectable and proudly self supporting: She shares her neat-as-a-pin basement apartment with an aging cat and the acerbic diaries she's been keeping since she was a girl, brilliantly bitter dissections of the minutia of her shriveled life.
New art teacher Sheba Hart (Blanchett) is Barbara's polar opposite: Her late father was a celebrity academic who left her the posh London townhouse she shares with her much older husband, Richard (Bill Nighy) — he was her professor in college — and their two children, spoiled teenager Polly (Juno Temple) and boistrous, mentally-challenged pre-adolescent Ben (Max Lewis). Sheba — short for Bathsheba — is stunning, cripplingly insecure and buffeted by sloppy emotions, a daddy's girl whose daddy died too soon and left her to the tender mercies of the waspish mother (Jill Baker) who never failed to remind her that it was a good thing she was born beautiful, because she lacks substance. Barbara befriends Sheba, giving her tips on how to keep the students in line, but Barbara's friendship is tinged with predatory intensity and Sheba is a disaster waiting to happen. Her naïve belief that art can transcend her students' shortcomings paves the way for a spectacualrly ill-considered affair with teenaged student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), and when Barbara realizes what's going on, her demands on Sheba's time become increasing intense and intrusive. When the inevitable scandal erupts, Sheba is force to retreat to Barbara's flat, where all their secrets come to light.
Though at heart a tightly-wound, bitterly bleak comedy of manners, Eyre's film is less funny than brilliantly squirm-inducing, a dissection of bad behavior via rapier-sharp dialogue. With lesser actresses in the leads, it could be merely nasty, but in Dench and Blanchett's hands, it's scathingly tragic without ever resorting to vulgar melodrama.
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