Anyone who has ever willingly submitted to the dominance of a toxic friend (girls, you know who you are) will shiver in recognition at Judi Dench's portrayal of a wolf-in-confidante's clothing in "Notes on a Scandal." Based on the sly, addictively creepy novel by Zoe Heller, it's the story of Bathsheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a pretty, upper-class art teacher in her late 30s who starts a new job at a working-class public school and soon finds herself squarely in the sights of two besotted suitors -- a 15-year-old student named Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson) and a lonely, bitter history teacher named Barbara Covett (Dench).
Fans of the book should be warned that however secret and sublimated Barbara's longings are in the novel, they are front and center here. So, disappointingly, are her motives. She's a lumpy, female Iago, an unrepentant schemer with a master plan. Dench completely inhabits the role, and the things she can do with an offhand phrase are consistently astounding. But in bringing Heller's book to the screen, director Richard Eyre ("Iris," "Stage Beauty") and screenwriter Patrick Marber ("Closer") have tossed the book's subtlety out the window, along with its psychological complexity, its running theme of self-deception and its dark, extra-wry sense of humor.
Whatever Heller is lampooning in her wickedly smart exploration of unequal female friendships -- those strangely ubiquitous associations based on the tacit agreement that the less fortunate friend will validate the feelings of martyrdom of the more fortunate friend -- Marber and Eyre couldn't be less interested. What they go for is maximum bombast, achieved with the aid of a chilly, urgent score by Philip Glass, some cool, dynamic editing and a simpler storyline about a frumpy, scary-smart lesbian who stalks the pretty teacher all the boys are hot for. Sexy, aspirational and post-politically correct, "Notes on a Scandal" could turn out to be the "Fatal Attraction" of the oughties.
On the bright side, Eyre and Marber seem to have found a gleeful antihero in Barbara, whom they make unsinkable. The movie's ending is a major departure from the book, but it evinces, if not quite a fondness, then a respect for her refreshingly open contempt for humanity. Some of the funniest moments in the movie involve Sheba's husband, Richard (Bill Nighy), a pompous, self-satisfied college professor 20 years her senior. In one scene, a studiously casual Richard lounges on the sofa of their South Kensington town house (which Sheba inherited from her father), lamenting the academic's paradox: When you're teaching, you wish you could be writing; when you're writing, you long to be back with your students, he says, flinging his big hands around on floppy wrists.
Small and sturdy Barbara, who is always teaching, as it turns out, and always writing in the journals that have been -- along with her sick cat -- her only true friends, gazes at his big, inflated head with such intensity, you fear she'll bore holes in it. Richard, of course, doesn't notice. His way of showing he likes a person is by telling them all about the book he's writing, as though he were bestowing a thoughtful personal gift. For him, as for Sheba, people exist to be talked at -- unless, of course, what they're saying is of personal interest to them.
This is what ultimately attracts Sheba to Steven, as well. Had he just been young and beautiful, she probably would have controlled herself. It's the wooing that does her in, the sustained, protracted flattery only an adolescent, unencumbered by experience or demands on his attention and time, can muster.
Marber and Eyre take pains not to make the gay villain a villain because she's gay, of course. As Barbara herself points out, she and Richard are haut bourgeois bohemians, and therefore, we can safely presume, categorically opposed to this type of bias. We're not supposed to fear and loathe Barbara because she's gay, we're supposed to fear and loathe her because she's repressed.
Sheba and Richard are anything but, of course, which is part of Sheba's problem. Among the things that shock and charm her about Steven is the meticulous neatness of his middle-class house, which stands in sharp contrast to the studied chaos of her own untarnishably patrician dwelling. This, for her, is some exotic slumming, just as allowing herself to fall in love with a boy is youth worship run amok. A not-yet fully grown, spiky-haired, freckled imp, Simpson's Steven looks exactly like the 15-year-old he is, making him the first male Lolita equivalent (in a heterosexual relationship) I can recall ever seeing on film. Blanchett is taller, cooler, wearier and clearly more than twice his age. As much as the book has on the movie on a psychological level, on a visual level, the effect is rather astounding. If nothing else, their scenes together should put an end to arguments about May-December romances only working one way around. The only time the camera doesn't leer at Blanchett, in fact, is when it's Richard's turn to look.
"Notes on a Scandal." MPAA rating: R for language and some aberrant sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Exclusively at Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; Landmark's NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd. (at Euclid Street), Santa Monica, (310) 281-8223.