**/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson
screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on the novel by Zoë Heller
directed by Richard Eyre
by Walter Chaw When Judi Dench's brittle enunciation breathes life into the prologue of Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal, there's a hope, however fleeting, that the film will deserve the performance. Her tweedy, support-hosed teacher Barbara Covett is set up as a distaff Richard III, looking to subvert the beautifuls acting as the royals in her school's social strata--the newest member of which, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), attracts the greatest amount of envy and desire. The characters' names are embarrassing (why not call them "Barbara Lust" and "Sheba Love"?), and it's not long before the picture follows suit, becoming as obvious and stillborn as its first half hour is scabrous and dangerous. Adapted from the Zoë Heller novel, it reminds of screenwriter Patrick Marber's Closer and how Mike Nichols's film adaptation similarly suffered from a gradual slackening of shock with the realization that its umbrella of misanthropy doesn't cast a dark shadow on all of us so much as it provides a vicarious thrill, like watching a cockfight, say, or a mantis eating its mate: though foul, its pungency is isolatable.