In “Notes on a Scandal,” the regally smarmy new feature from director Richard Eyre (“Stage Beauty”), a solitary scene distinguishes itself by sitting the characters down to speak frankly to each other for the first time. After trying to fight her way through a crowd of mutinous London reporters ablaze with the news of her affair with her 15-year-old student, Sheba (Cate Blachett) is forced into the basement apartment of Barbara (Judi Dench), a maverick wit and fellow teacher whom Sheba has just learned engineered the public outcry over her affair. They sit at a table, quietly aghast, and viciously cut into each other.
And it’s about time. Penned with the blood-on-the-walls savagery of playwright Patrick Marber (“Closer”) from the Zoe Heller novel, “Notes on a Scandal” moves along at such a breakneck pace and is charged with such malicious insincerity between the characters that the final confrontation is extraordinarily cathartic.
The rest of the film is little more than the requisite faux prestige piece that sneaks its way into the awards season every year. Not a half hour into the movie, when we learn of Sheba’s affair and of Barbara’s intent to use it to make Sheba fall in love with her (yes, really), the anxious rush of the screenplay has already begun to lose its way. As the characters work diligently to ensure their eternal misery, even Barbra’s venomous running commentary on Shelia’s life (spoken by Dench in a deadpan voice-over) becomes just another part of the grind.
It’s uncharacteristic of talent like Dench and Blanchett to put so much into so little, especially in a film featuring the year’s most elegantly packaged homophobia and a camera that treads a little too comfortably down its 15-year-old paramour’s waistline. The screenplay is a live wire, but this parade of pointless transgressions is no less inane for it. If this is your idea of entertainment, indulge. But for my student discount, “Stomp the Yard” is playing down the street, and I hear the popcorn refills are a total steal.
Notes on a Scandal
At the State Theater, Quality 16 and Showcase
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars