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Dangerous Liaisons

"Notes on a Scandal" examines the imperfect lives of regular people.

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ovies usually contemplate the activities of higher beings, but occasionally they stoop to inspect the lower orders. Some of the itchiest dramas break out among the most common bodies, in the most unassuming settings. More films should be like "Notes on a Scandal," turning our attention away from superheroes and the rich, toward the quiet machinations of the mailman, or the druggist, or, in this case, a couple of bored high-school teachers in London.

This is where Barbara (Judi Dench), an aging history teacher nearing retirement, spies and befriends the comely new art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett). Barbara describes herself depreciatingly as a "battle ax," but she's being coy. She's tough with the unruly boys, yes, but that's not all. Behind this silent grandmotherly façade lurks a devil only hinted at by the steely eyes — one with a forked pen she uses to note the traits and activities of those around her in daily diary entries.

Here's how Barbara characterizes Sheba's family, including her cheerful writer husband (Bill Nighy), her self-conscious teenage daughter and her Down syndrome-stricken son: The husband's "a decaying relic, almost my age ... Then there's the pocket princess, and then the sort of court jester." And if you couldn't tell from that, Barbara really likes her new gal-pal. As for her and her new friend, Barbara observes that Sheba is "a novice," unburdening herself to "Mother Superior." With Sheba, Barbara is like a housecat watching a mouse hole, patiently waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Sheba provides a doozy of an opportunity, having an affair with one of her students, the bright-eyed and tart-mouthed Steven (Andrew Simpson), who's all of 15. Barbara first sees them hiding out during an assembly. She can't even write in her diary because she's in such a state of shock. What an opportunity! She calls Sheba at once and demands a meeting. She won't go public, she says, but she will help. The two will grow ever closer, she sighs, bound together by their secret.

Sheba's paramour is a rosy cheeked and feral-eyed youth without much on his mind but how "right fit" the new mum is. Though we can't blame him for saying anything to get into his teacher's private study, he can't be called a likeable, virtuous lad either. Steven is a self-centered, capricious liar, but you can't blame him, and neither does the movie. His soul, if it will ever appear, is still in limbo, one of many things "Notes" gets dead right. Steven, used and using, is presented neither as a hero nor a villain. The strongest point of this movie is that it simply observes and shows people as they are, without praise or condemnation.

Based on a novel by Zo‰ Heller, the movie has a writer's eye for detail and an ear for great dialogue. When Sheba and Steven get extracurricular for the first time, it's not under the glow of candles or in a down bed, but in the grass between two boxcars down at the railroad tracks. It's simultaneously cringe-inducing and exhilarating, not something you'd call erotic. That kind of emotion would be sympathetic, something "Notes on a Scandal" resolutely tries to avoid, as in the relationship between Sheba and her husband.

Richard explodes when he learns of his wife's insanely stupid escapade. But should we feel sorry for a cuckold who married a woman decades his junior? Or for Sheba, a middle-aged woman of comfort and privilege who ruins her family for a dose of low adventure?

"Notes on a Scandal" has a few minor faults, including the overplaying of Philip Glass' otherwise fine music, reminiscent of a great old Hollywood score-master like Bernard Herrmann. They just needed to lower the volume once in a while. Maybe it's so noticeable because the rest of the film rarely sounds off.

As the story repeatedly asserts, misery loves company, and for that you can't do better this winter than contemplate the loneliness of these sad characters. People like Sheba, Barbara reminds us, don't know what it's like to go months, years without the touch of another human, anticipating the slightest accidental brush like some brief gift. Maybe you can relate, maybe you can't. But you can empathize, and more importantly you can believe. "Notes on a Scandal" makes sure of that. (R) 98 min. ****

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