An over-the-top cinematic pleasure

Right from the start, Notes on a Scandal (in theaters 12/27) is a grand, guilty pleasure, thanks to Dame Judi Dench’s fearless, go-for-broke portrayal of the film’s unreliable narrator. “Teaching is crowd control,” Dench’s Barbara Covett says in an early voice-over, and it’s clear this bitter old battle-ax won’t have much nice to say about any of her students or fellow teachers, which instantly makes the movie extremely funny.

But almost immediately, too, it becomes a tense psychological thriller, because Barbara’s obsessed with the naive new art teacher, Sheba, played by an equally terrific Cate Blanchett. And Sheba, in turn, becomes obsessed with a cute, charismatic 15-year-old schoolboy, who’s obsessed with her. And guess who happens to see them hooking up and who then becomes obsessed with using that ruinous secret.

Even if you saw all of this coming (particularly if you read the Zoë Heller novel from which the movie’s adapted), you’ll still be transfixed, because Dench and Blanchett thrillingly dance and duel their way to the finish like women on the verge of something much worse than a nervous breakdown.

Screaming! Slapping! Shoving! An overheated Philip Glass score!

It’s all deliciously, awesomely over-the-top.

WATCH the trailer for Notes on a Scandal

BUY Zoë Heller’s What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal

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