MOVIE REVIEW- Notes on <i>Notes:</i> Witty dialogue leavens sad story

The Oscar nominations got a lot more right than usual this year, including giving Letters from Iwo Jima the Best Picture and Director noms everyone thought were in the overrated Dreamgirls' pocket. And at least they didn't overlook the lead performances and screenplay of Notes on a Scandal.

The Children's Hour gets a darkly comic update in Notes on a Scandal. Richard Eyre's (Iris, Stage Beauty) film illustrates the toll a lifetime of sexual repression can take on a person and how big a role great material plays in eliciting great performances.  

Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett may be genetically incapable of acting badly, but Patrick Marber's (Closer) screenplay, based on a novel by Zoe Heller, brings out the best in them. His words were meant to roll off Dench's acid tongue, and Blanchett's face and body were born to portray the complex emotions he writes about.

Dench plays Barbara Covett, who reveals her feelings only to her diary. She lives alone with her cat, Portia, "standard issue for spinsters." By day, she teaches history to "the local pubescent proles... In the old days we confiscated cigarettes and whack mags. Nowadays it's knives and crack cocaine. And they call it progress...

"Teaching is crowd control... cattle-prod and pray." 

It's not as hard for Barbara– "I'm just a battle-ax. I'm not popular, but they respect me"– as it is for the new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Blanchett), who is younger, prettier, and less experienced.

Noting that each of the other teachers "has a go at" Miss Hart, Barbara waits her turn, which comes when she breaks up a fight between two students in Sheba's classroom. This earns her an invitation to Sunday dinner at Sheba's home in "bourgeois bohemia," where she's surprised to learn Sheba's husband, Richard (Bill Nighy) is "a puckered patriarch, almost as old as me," who brought along two children from his first marriage: teenage Polly (Juno Temple), who has boy trouble, and Ben (Max Lewis), who has Down's Syndrome.

The women talk girl talk in Sheba's backyard studio– "more of a refuge, actually," she calls it– where Sheba is like "a novice confessing to the mother superior." Barbara reads far more into it than actually exists, and she and her new friend become "S. and I" in her diary.

Things progress well enough to feed Barbara's fantasies until the night she observes Sheba going down on Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson), a 15-year-old student ("but he's quite mature for his age," Sheba rationalizes when confronted). Sheba describes the affair to Barbara in a way that makes it understandable, though not justifiable; and Barbara, who was planning to report it, realizes she can turn the incident to her advantage by giving her a hold on Sheba. "No one can violate our magnificent complicity."

After that, of course, things get complicated. Neither Sheba's fetal attraction nor Barbara's attempts to realize her fantasy of "a life lived together" is condoned, but there are opportunities to feel sorry for both women.

Notes on a Scandal tells a really sad story, but the witty writing provides more than enough comic relief. Despite its nomination, Philip Glass' sometimes overbearing score is the only negative factor in this solid achievement.