by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Notes on a Scandal & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & udy Dench's thighs and shoulders cut harrowing lines in bath water. She's laying half-submerged, covering her breasts with one hand, pinching a cigarette with the other. She stares with vacant fury into a space just left of director Richard Eyre's camera, milking every ounce of fear, spite and scorn out of her character, Barbara Covett.

Covett draws the bath after being assaulted by a 15-year-old boy, Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). He'd learned it was Barbara who ratted out him and his teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), for their art-room trysts. Covett had wanted to take Sheba as a lover, but having spent so long in cloistered denial of her sexuality, she had no clue how to do this. The first time she found Sheba with Steven, then, she used it to draw Sheba to her. The second time she came upon them, feeling spurned, Covett used it to ruin the object of her lust.

Reclining in the bathroom -- against white tiles, a porcelain tub, that sickening cream-colored water -- Covett's milky grey skin inspires both revulsion and sympathy. She still desperately wants Sheba, despite her betrayal, and so she lies there, worried that Sheba has also found out she snitched. By this point in Notes on a Scandal, we've known Covett's maliciousness for a while. We now realize that her malice is a product of shame and repression. She's never had anyone. She seems unsure of what having someone is like. She speaks of great friendships as though friendship and love are interchangeable. Barbara is alone because she doesn't know how to admit that she's gay. She's hostile to a world that hasn't allowed her that freedom.

It's an important moment that requires no shortage of cunning by actor, director and writer. After an audience has been warned of a character's monstrous intent and then shown the hideous results, it's incredibly hard to humanize the monster believably. "She'll never know," says Covett of Sheba, narrating one of her many diary entries, "what it's like to plan her weeks around a trip to the launderette." Most of Dench's dialog is delivered in voice-over, her endless written musings about interaction dwarfing the time she actually spends talking to people.

That isn't to say the film makes excuses for Covett. There's never any doubt that Sheba is straight and that Covett has spent so long suppressing her sexuality that she never learned how to focus it, much less express it to another person. Humanizing someone doesn't mean exonerating her. The film attempts, simply, to gauge the depths of loneliness that lead people to do reckless, desperate things. In their recklessness and desperation, Covett and Sheba are equals, though Patrick Marber's screenplay does a better job with Covett's motivation than Sheba's in this respect.

Marber's work, densely plotted and economical, is perhaps too compact in parts for Eyre's direction. The transition Covett makes between heaping scorn on Sheba's "bourgeois pretensions" and becoming utterly smitten happens inside of 10 minutes. Eyre and Marber should have either given it more time to develop or made a more forceful case that the scorn was masking immediate attraction.

The script is imperfect but taut, enough to let the formidable cast (not simply Dench and Blanchett, but the surprising young Simpson and the mesmerizing Bill Nighy) tell a hard tale well. (Rated R)

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