Whitney Pastorek
January 26, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

As the old saying goes: If it’s Oscar season, it must be time to honor Judi Dench. After all, for five of the last eight years, the diminutive Dame, 72, has received an acting nomination, winning the statue once (for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love). It’s an impressive string of somewhat predictable roles — queens and other noble, older women — that comes to a (literally) screeching halt this year, as Dench tries something new on for size: being way evil.

In Notes on a Scandal, Dench plays Barbara Covett, a high school teacher whose empty life has left her brittle and sharp as bone, the only outlet for her bottled emotions a series of diaries in which she compulsively records her days. She is drawn to a vibrant young art teacher named Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), and when she discovers that married Sheba is having an affair with one of her teenage students, Barbara wields that knowledge like a blade. Snapping instructions and threatening disaster, Dench’s regal face transforms into something snakelike, sinister; even in pleasant moments, her dark motives pierce from behind black, beady eyes. In a role that could easily have been a one-note torrent of unrelenting bitterness and anger, Dench plays a symphony. ”What Judi has done with Barbara is infuse her with a great humanity, but not shied away from the reprehensible,” Blanchett told EW. ”And that’s exhilarating for an audience, to be taken on that ride.”

Cunning, then desperate, Dench finds every nuance of Barbara’s obsession. Is she calculating or delusional? You’re never quite sure. But one thing is clear: In Notes on a Scandal, Dench adds another brilliant performance to her nearly 50-year career. She also provides a compelling reason to hand over the Oscar: After seeing this movie, would you want to piss her off?

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