January 29, 2007 12:00 PM

Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy

BY LEAH ROZEN

CRITIC’S CHOICE

DRAMA

Actors always claim it’s more fun playing a bad character than a good one. And Judi Dench clearly has a blast—and gives a brilliantly nuanced performance—portraying a truly evil woman in this deliciously sour film. As Barbara Covett, a spinster teacher at a London school, she craftily insinuates herself into the life of Sheba Hart (Blanchett), a vulnerable new teacher with whom she becomes obsessed. When Barbara discovers Sheba—who’s married and has kids—is having sex with a 15-year-old male student, her jealous fury only increases her cunning.

Notes walks a fine line between high camp (latent lesbian goes nutso!) and superbly observed character study. Director Richard Eyre (Iris, also starring Dench) deftly ratchets up the suspense while keeping his characters believably human. Blanchett and Nighy, as Sheba’s kindly hubby, each give exquisitely textured performances. But in the end, Notes belongs to Dench. Seething and scheming beneath a matronly tweed jacket, she’s simultaneously diabolically scary and hugely pathetic. (R)

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