A precariously skewed adaptation of the novel by Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal chronicles two converging folies d’amour. Married novice teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett) ruts with a horny teenage lad, while spinster battle-axe Barbara (Judi Dench) covets her fetching young colleague. The twin tragedies are framed by Barbara’s caustic but romantically biased narration (think Pale Fire), which skewers as a matter of routine Sheba’s older husband (Bill Nighy) and her moral equivocations of her underage affair.
By turns flinty and petulant, Dench does wonders with a character that has both the most incisive lines and a desperation with which the filmmakers take lurid license. The idea, apparently, is that bonsai’ed by earlier eras she’s rationalized her sexuality into close “friendships,” like the one she here attempts through some ineffectual blackmailing of Sheba; meanwhile, Sheba can blithely, unthinkingly fall into an illegal fling.
But screenwriter Patrick Marber (Closer) hitches his themes to what’s essentially a suspense narrative based — in “edgy” stage drama fashion — on who will be the last to screw over someone else emotionally. It’s hard to sense any sincerity about the pathos of Barbara’s situation, and one fears even worse, as mightily as Dench (and, more quietly, Blanchett) try to mine the loneliness and emptiness in their very different characters. The creep and then whiplash-turn to a tabloid tone amount to a revealing copout rather than the broadening the filmmakers intend (though it’s not an impossible move, if one thinks of The Opposite of Sex).