Oscar nominations figured to fly with the pairing of the two leads in Notes on a Scandal -- Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, widely considered among the finest thespians of their respective generations. And sure enough, both were nominated for this frequently uncomfortable tête-à-tête, which could have been hyped as a boxing match between acting heavyweights. But the votes from their peers were no mere knee-jerk reactions to seeing their names -- each does remarkably subtle work here. While Dench's part is the more overtly juicy, allowing her to plumb the depths of bitterness inspired by rejection, Blanchett may actually have the more complicated role. Her picture-perfect bourgeois life is a sham cover for a panoply of insecurities, and at times her performance is like witnessing a bizarre anachronism -- a woman of such elegant beauty and universal appeal having rough sex with her student by the train tracks. This commingling of traits in the same character may have given some viewers pause, and at times Richard Eyre's film comes across as topical and simplistic. However, seeing the characters' barely contained rage finally erupt at each other is worth the price of admission. Notes on a Scandal joins a fine tradition of films that explore the emotional minefield of unbalanced friendships. The actresses navigate these traps through an uneasy collection of carefully modulated social responses and calculated manipulation, which are ultimately undone by moments of reckless insult or unforgivable trespass. The film cleverly invites viewers to shift loyalties multiple times during the story -- all while working toward the inevitable conclusion that both women are irredeemable. Given the delicious build-up, Notes on a Scandal concludes too tidily, with too little catharsis. But just watching Dench and Blanchett practice their craft is the antidote to any narrative imperfections.