A lot is right about Notes On A Scandal, starting with Judi Dench's performance as a bitter spinster teacher, alternately enraged and titillated by the actions of a young colleague, Cate Blanchett, who has an affair with one of her teenage students. Dench takes the audience into her confidence, narrating from her diary as she uses her intimate knowledge to coerce Blanchett into becoming her friend—and maybe something even closer. But Dench is an unreliable narrator, so viewers can see what she can't: that Blanchett is such a fundamentally sweet woman that she'd probably have been Dench's friend anyway, and that Dench is the kind of miserably proper English lady who'd never admit to herself that she has sexual needs of her own.
A lot is wrong about Notes On A Scandal too, starting with a frenetic Phillip Glass score that absurdly heightens nearly every scene in which it's used, squeezing the wit out of what might've been a wicked black comedy. Though maybe Glass was just taking his cues from director Richard Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber; in adapting Zoe Heller's novel, they've reduced these characters to their basest impulses, and made only the most facile, sophomore-psych-class-level attempts to understand them. As with Marber's Closer, Notes On A Scandal imagines a modern world where everyone's days are taken up with furtive sex and emotional warfare, and no one's connected enough to the families they're about to lose for the audience to care whether it happens.
Notes On A Scandal is extra-frustrating because it's mostly very smart, and full of keen observations about the differences between Dench's buttoned-down, disapproving generation and Blanchett's wide-open, accepting one, and how neither group is very happy with the choices they've made. (Bridging the gap: Bill Nighy, playing Blanchett's cuckolded husband as a man who wants to be cool but can't.) And Dench herself is a marvel, expressing both her character's deep loneliness and the obnoxious propriety that makes her so hard to like. But Eyre and Marber don't heed the cautionary example of their heroine. A movie about a woman who holds in her desires until she cracks shouldn't itself be so brittle.