Before we get into the magnificence of Dame Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, let us sing the praises of Bill Nighy.
First, the name is pronounced "Nigh." One syllable, rhymes with "high" and "sigh." It's not NI-gee or NI-hee.
For years, Nighy was a staple on the British stage and on British television. Over here, most of us never heard of Nighy until 2003 and "Love Actually," with his bawdy, hilarious and spot-on portrayal of a decrepit rocker.
Since then, Nighy has been a welcome presence in films. Now comes his work in "Notes on a Scandal," and though about 99 percent of the praise you'll see in the blurbs for this film will be directed toward Dench and Blanchett, it would be a crime to overlook Nighy's brilliance.
He plays Richard Hart, a decidedly nonrakish 50-something college professor who is keenly aware that most everybody who first encounters him will be stunned that Cate Blanchett's lovely and much younger Sheba ended up with him. He is also the world's kindest father and he loves his wife with the passion of a poet.
We already know Nighy can do funny and charming and shambling and smart, and he does all that here so well — but then comes the moment when he learns his schoolteacher wife is having an affair with an underage student, and his reaction is so wounded and so real and so explosive that it's almost painful to watch. This is great acting.
Based on the whip-smart novel from Zoe Heller titled "What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal," director Richard Eyre's adaptation is a sharp and grown-up take on a salacious subject: a Mary Kay Letourneau-type affair between an attractive, married mother and a minor who doesn't exactly come across as an innocent victim. (In fact, there's some question about who's the predator and who's the prey here, though the responsibility for the criminal affair lies strictly with the adult, of course.)
Blanchett's Sheba is a former Bohemian type who has spent the last decade-plus running her home and raising two children, including a son with Down syndrome. Now she wants to break out and do something for herself, and she naively thinks that teaching art at a lower-middle-class public school is just the ticket.
Dench is one of the most menacing spinsters this side of Kathy Bates in "Misery," though her madness is much more subtle. She plays Barbara, a hard-faced career schoolteacher who frightens the students and has no friends beyond her spoiled house cat. Within the walls of the school, Barbara has the authority and clout of a prison warden; the moment the bell rings and she has to step into the outside world, she is one of those nearly invisible women at the market who wears a sour expression as she picks through the fruit. The highlight of Barbara's day comes when she writes in her voluminous journals, obsessing over every temple-throbbingly dull detail of her day.
To Barbara's great surprise, Sheba takes a liking to her, and they become friends — though the friendship is instantly and heavily one-sided, with Sheba just being nice to a lonely lady she works with, while Barbara's interest in Sheba quickly turns into an all-consuming obsession.
When Barbara first discovers Sheba's scandalous secret, she reacts to the perceived betrayal with disgust, as if witnessing a mutilation.
We expect her to go to the authorities, and that's what Barbara expects herself to do — but at the last moment it occurs to Barbara that she can use this information to get what she wants most, and that is to have Sheba beholden to her. She makes Sheba promise to end the affair, and then lords the incriminating knowledge over her.
It is a chilling, memorable performance, and Dench will earn many award nominations, as should Blanchett. They are perhaps the most impressive acting duo in any film of 2006.
And Bill Nighy is their equal.