"Notes on a Scandal" is a nice mug of poisoned eggnog for the holiday season -- a movie so smart and entertaining you almost don't feel its chill sicken your bones. Those who know the novels of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell may recognize the movie's antiheroine as belonging to a select company of warped souls. Others can take this elegant creep-out as a British take on "Fatal Attraction," minus the boiled bunnies.
Above all, "Notes" offers yet another stunning Judi Dench performance, this one crabbed and mean and surprising. Her character, the aptly named Barbara Covett, is a history teacher at a rough-and-tumble London boys' school. She has been there far too long and has become a fixture: the prim, cultured dragon lady who inspires fear and grudging respect. "Children are feral," she snaps at one point, and clearly she hates the little beasts. She doesn't think much of the grown-ups, either.
Into Barbara's world swims Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a disheveled but glamorous new art teacher. "Hard to read the wispy novice," the older woman writes in her diary. "Is she an artist or simply stupid?" A bit of both, it turns out.
Adapted from Zoë Heller's well-regarded 2003 novel "What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal)," the movie is about discreet obsessions spiraling out of control and proper British behavior going all to hell. Sheba is happily married to an older man, a professor named Richard (the always welcome Bill Nighy); they have a teenage daughter (Juno Temple) and a young son with Down syndrome (Max Lewis). Against all common sense -- which is the attraction, really -- Sheba finds herself drawn to a 15-year-old student named Steven (Andrew Simpson).
Bad form, you say? You don't know the half of it. Barbara comes to learn of her new friend's secret, and "Notes on a Scandal" embarks on an eerie, unsettling dance of manipulation and vengefulness. What does Sheba want? Only to be young again. What does Barbara want? Something more than a friend. Simple things, but they lead both women into monstrousness.
The movie's an odd hybrid: a highbrow suspense freak-out. The screenwriter is Patrick Marber, whose play and script for "Closer" negotiated similar hairpin turns of venality and need, and the director is Richard Eyre, the British theater veteran whose second career as a filmmaker is looking better and better. Eyre directed Dench in "Iris," but "Notes" is a shallower, trickier piece of work.
As in the book, Barbara's diary entries serve as unreliable narration, but here we actually see the widening gap between her perceptions and reality. The gambit works because the observations are so juicily nasty -- "They do things rather differently in bourgeois bohemia," Barbara sniffs after a loosey-goosey dinner at the Harts' -- but also because they build, bit by bit, into a portrait of a desperately lonely monomaniac. Some might read the character as a lesbian caricature, but she's too deluded for that. Barbara can't even see the closet, let alone all that's hanging in it.
There are moments of tension to make you crawl up the back of your seat: Barbara, insane with grief over the death of a pet, insisting Sheba mourn with her right now or she'll tell Richard everything. Barbara asking if she can stroke Sheba's arms, just as the girls did back in boarding school. Simpson's young student is a smiling adolescent satyr, as much seducer as victim, and Blanchett's Sheba is a fool we understand, even as we shrink in disgust. A movie like this needs a pillar of sanity, too, and that's Nighy.
That said, it's Dench's movie. The character's a fully realized conception, in the ciggie smoking that offends her crunchy peers, in the secret thrill she takes in Sheba's transgression, in the strict order she maintains in her little life, lest the walls come crashing down. They do anyway.
The one mistake in "Notes on a Scandal" is its music: a Philip Glass score that tootles loudly in the usual circles and pushes the film toward a horror movie that's not happening, at least not in a way to which we're accustomed. The great Glass score you're looking for is "The Illusionist"; this one is more obvious than anything that happens onscreen.
The appropriate music for a story like this would probably be variations on "What I Did for Love," each more atonal than the last. You'll want to take a shower after "Notes on a Scandal," but you'll be glad you got dirty.