Tales Out Of School

The aptly named Barbara Covett, a stern and lonely teacher at a shabby London secondary school, is a master of both deception and self-deception, which makes her a very dangerous and pathetic woman. Played with acid-tongued relish by Judi Dench in a radical departure from her roles as royalty, she's a deliciously nasty piece of work.

Barbara, whose closest companion is her cat, has fallen in love, though she would never put it that way. The focus of her obsession is Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), the new art teacher. Attractive, young, happily married with two children and a "bourgeois bohemian" sense of privilege, Sheba is everything Barbara isn't.

Imagine her shock when she discovers Sheba in the arms of 15-year-old student Steven (Andrew Simpson). But Barbara quickly gets over her horror when she realizes the glorious opportunity this presents. Now their fates will be forever interlocked. It will be our little secret, she tells the shaken Sheba, as long as you give up the affair.

"Notes on a Scandal" is a wicked delight. Adapted by playwright Patrick Marber from Zoe Heller's acclaimed novel, it's at once a comedy of class, a melodrama of two women in the grips of obsessions, and a "Fatal Attraction"-style thriller. It's not easy to pull off the delicate mix of tones, but Richard ("Iris") Eyre's zesty direction gets it just right. What happens when the scandal gets out I'll leave for you to discover. Even if you know the novel, you'll hang on every turn.

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