When Zoë Heller’s 2003 novel appeared in the U.S., publishers changed the title to What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal]. The first four words make perfect sense after Cate Blanchett violates what should be a cardinal cinematic rule: Do not cross Judi Dench. The Dame, who’s played caustic queens (Shakespeare in Love), haughty aristocrats (Pride & Prejudice), and James Bond’s boss, has never been so pernicious than as Barbara, Scandal’s delusional lesbian teacher. Think of her as the talented Ms. Ripley, minus the homicidal tendencies.
Desperate and withdrawn, Barbara is a hardened battle-ax who sees teaching as nothing more than crowd control. But when the dazzling Sheba (Blanchett), an idealistic art instructor, arrives, Barbara is smitten, and confides plans for seduction to her trusted diary. An opportunity arises when Sheba is revealed to be less pristine than she appears, and when Barbara feels betrayed, hell hath no fury. ”Think very carefully, madame!” she warns her colleague. ”Be aware of the consequences!” She’s referring to a secret that would destroy Sheba, but she may as well be scolding an unruly student. It’s an astounding, vanity-free performance that might consume Method actors, but Dench didn’t seem so bothered. ”She doesn’t brood around the set being Barbara,” says director Richard Eyre in ”The Story of Two Obsessions,” one of three repetitive making-ofs. ”She’s Judi Dench, who will be telling anecdotes up to the last moment until the director calls ‘Action!”’
To Barbara, Sheba is a puzzle — ”Is she a sphinx or simply stupid?” she wonders — but it is Blanchett who is the enigma, masking crippling vulnerability behind her angelic beauty. The character’s depravity didn’t scare off Blanchett; she lobbied for the role even before playwright Patrick Marber (Closer) had finished adapting the book. ”The two women are profoundly — probably irrevocably — flawed, and the film almost celebrates that,” Blanchett says in ”Two Obsessions.” No more so than when an unhinged Sheba violently confronts Barbara about her malicious duplicity. Eyre recalls fearing for Dench’s safety while filming, as Blanchett bullied her against a hutch, and the confrontation crackles with tension. (All was well once the cameras stopped: The dueling monarchs — both played Queen Elizabeth in 1998 films — toasted the scene’s conclusion with champagne.)
Only when the secret that binds Barbara to Sheba is exposed does the story falter, as conventional tabloid fascination yields a deflated last act. Eyre even contemplated an alternate finale: ”I always feel that in some way it should be like the end of Some Like It Hot: ‘Nobody’s perfect.”’ Just the same, the film nearly is. A-