At the crux of this twisted melodrama is Judi Dench, a tightly wound spinster schoolteacher named Barbara Covett with a penchant for obsessing on the weak. In this case new St. George's School hires Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), an anxious bohemian art teacher dubbed "the wispy novice."
Barb keeps her stalker sensibilities under wraps while biding her time in becoming indispensable to Sheba, who needs all the help she can get in maintaining discipline with her unruly charges. Soon the pair is doing regular lunches and Barb is worming her way into Hart with gleeful but cautious abandon. ("A merry flag on the arctic wilderness of my calendar!")
The world comes crashing down when Barb discovers Sheba is having an affair with 15-year-old St. George student Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson). Barb feels betrayed, her magnificent complicity with Sheba violated by a pubescent paramour. For her part Sheba cannot or will not forego her imprudent indiscretion.
Based on Zoe Heller's delicious novel "What Was She Thinking?" (indeed!), "Notes" borrows liberally from its vivid prose and utilizes luscious phrasing in keen voice-over by Dench. Screenwriter Patrick Marber ("Closer") stays faithful to the source material but tacks on "Fatal Attraction" twists that play more sordid than suspenseful.
Dench gives an Oscar-worthy performance as an emotionally devious SWF who dreads ending her days alone and unspools her warped conspiracies with vigilant vengeance.
The Dench/Blanchett show has support in all the right places. Bill Nighy is magnificent as Sheba's loyal, unsuspecting husband, and Simpson smirks and smolders as the adolescent lothario with a stranglehold on Sheba's fracturing psyche. An overwrought score matches the flamboyantly scandalous mood, rendering the whole a wanton cinematic treat.