For those surprising very few who think Helen Mirren is completely miscast in Stephen Frears’s overrated trifle The Queen, Exhibit A of why is illustrated in Judi Dench’s ultimate depiction of corpulent geriatric cunning in Notes on a Scandal. To play a desexed monstrosity (or at least that’s how The Queen wanted it) like Queen Elizabeth II, the film needed an actress who you wanted to run from, with a face like a slapped ass. Certainly not Mirren’s relatively suave and, frankly, too voluptuous rendition, and after seeing Dench plumb the lower recesses of unpleasantness here, you wish The Queen had a bit more bite. It’s the role that many of her fans have wanted from her for years now, instead of these genteel, dottering old biddies. Of course, Dench is the best thing about this deliciously overheated melodrama, directed with too-brisk economy by Richard Eyre (Stage Beauty) and scored with typical whiplash by Philip Glass, whose orchestral headaches actually work in this context.
The film is an unapologetically lurid dive into female longing, not unlike those tawdry black-and-white curiosities that play in the background of tacky gay bars. Ratty-haired, cat-loving Barbara Covett (Dench), a harsh disciplinarian, narrates the tale of her involvement with the radiant Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the luminous new art teacher who very quickly gets it on with one of her 15-year-old students (Andrew Simpson). She is stuck in a loveless marriage to an older chap (Bill Nighy), with a tarty young daughter and a son with Down Syndrome (who Barbara hilariously refers to in her narration as a “tiresome court jester”), and is turned on by the attention of youth. The drama spirals out of control as Barbara uses her knowledge of the affair to her advantage, spinning the tale into a sort of Single White Female for the aging Sapphic set.
If only the film’s early momentum were kept intact. Like that film, it crumbles in its third act, rushing plot points together as if the air in the theater would vanish if it weren’t wrapped up in under 95 minutes. Too bad, really, because Dench takes the performance to the max, unafraid to look horrifying and ridiculous, as in the funniest of these moments, when she approaches Blanchett’s family car when one of her children shrieks, “Oh God, look!” as if Quasimodo were about to hop in. Blanchett is always less convincing when playing desperate women, but she makes the character’s anxiety fully palpable, and as far as being a woman people put themselves in danger for, she more than fits the bill. Nighy, usually a great go-to guy for enlivening creaky narratives, is disappointingly one-note here, with outbursts that feel off-center even in a film as unhinged as this one. But his character feels like an afterthought anyway; in fact, it might have been more effective if the film didn’t try to humanize him. Low on subtlety (Blanchett’s character’s full name is Bathsheba, for chrissakes), it is nonetheless very entertaining in that way you don’t quite know how to admit to. I don’t know what Eyre, screenwriter Patrick Marber (Closer) et al. thought in the making of the picture, but they just may have created the gay camp classic of 2006.