Dale Peck on the Movies

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DALE PECK ON THE MOVIES

Notes on a Scandal is a diva-lovers delight, in which Judi Dench shows Gate Blanchett just what an actress is made of.

'For audiences used to see-ing Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria, or even the imperious, silvercoirffed"M"of the last five James Bond movies, the ragged figure who stalks, scuttles, and otherwise skulks after Gate Blanchett in this adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel Notes on a Scandal: What Was She Thinking? will come as something of a shock. Dame Judi is old-72 this past December-and the movie makes sure you know it. Every wrinkle and blemish is high-lighted, the dowager's hump exaggerated, the slack stomach allowed to spill like so much sacking over unflatteringly cinched dresses. Even Dench's trademark spiky hair-take that, Annie Lennox-has been concealed by a mouse-colored wig through which pale slices of scalp gape like cuts in the rind of a cheese.

Yet Dench is such an indomitable pres-ence that not even these assaults on her person keep her from owning every scene in the movie, including those that feature her only in voice-over. In these days of Joan Rivers, Cher, Morgan Fairchild, and the in-creasingly taut Nicole Kidman-varied and genuine talents who have all diminished their expressiveness through excessive plastic surgery-it is something of a privi-lege to see a fully mobile, fully human old person's face on-screen. The secret of this and every other Dench performance is that she seems to be unaware of, or at least un-concerned with, the camera's view of her. Her fierce and often menacing strength comes completely from within.

By contrast, Gate Blanchett is perhaps the most self-conscious actress currently working (only Susan Sarandon gives her a run for her money). Every gesture, move-ment, and twitch of the lips or eyes is done exclusively for the camera's gaze; whenever one looks for signs of an internal life, one finds only a hard polished shell. Perhaps for this reason, Blanchett's best perfor-mance was as Galadriel, the shimmering, whacked-out elf queen of The Lord of the Rings, though she also shines in period pieces as diverse as her own royal turn in Elizabeth and her bitchy American heiress Meredith Logue in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It's somewhat harder to buy that kind of artifice in a purely character-based perfor-mance. In Babel she seems almost to enjoy the opportunity for histrionics occasioned by a bullet to the chest, and in Notes on a Scandal, in which she plays a dilettantish potter who takes a position as a high school teacher to escape her domestic doldrums, it's hard to believe her delicate fingers have ever touched anything as mundane-as cold, clammy, and gray-as wet clay. Judi Dench, in other words, is an actress. Gate Blanchett is a movie star.

One scene in particular, in which Dench and Blanchett walk arm in arm down a residential street in London, epitomizes the difference between the two performances. …

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