A veteran high school teacher befriends a younger art teacher, who is having an affair with one of her 15-year-old students. However, her intentions with this new "friend" also go well beyond platonic friendship.
The bitter, cynical and lonely Barbara Covett is a tough and conservative teacher, near to retirement, who is loathed by her colleagues and students. In the loneliness of her apartment, she spends her spare time writing her journal, taking care of her old cat Portia and missing her special friend Jennifer Dodd. When Sheba Hart joins the high-school as the new art teacher, Barbara dedicates her attention to the newcomer, writing sharp and unpleasant comments about her behavior and clothes. When Barbara helps Sheba in a difficult situation with two students, the grateful Sheba invites her to have lunch with her family. Sheba introduces her husband and former professor Richard Hart, who is about twenty years older than she; her rebellious teenager daughter Polly; and her son Ben that has Down's Syndrome. Barbara becomes close to Sheba, but when she accidentally discovers that Sheba is having an affair with the fifteen year-old student Steven Connolly, Barbara sees the chance to ... Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
When Barbara has had her meeting with the headmaster at which he reveals what he knows about her stalking of Jennifer Dodd, she throws up in a school toilet. In the background, on the wall, is written the graffiti: "Babs Covett = nasty old lezza. I want to lick her mangy twat." See more »
When Barbara visits Sheba for the first time, she's carrying a bouquet. She sits in the living room and puts her left arm over the flowers. In the next shot, her arm is under. See more »
[voiceover of Barbara writing in her diary]
People trust me with their secrets. But who do I trust with mine? You, only you.
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This is a story told through the proper subjective medium, film, with such painful, cynical candor for how Barbara has spent a life disabusing herself of any rose-tinted notion of life or people. The price? Absolute, utter loneliness. The dynamic human images we see our narrated by the day-by-day items in the diary she zealously keeps as a sanctuary, and an affirmation. The movie fixes on acts of indiscretion and disloyalty, entailing not just our scathingly wise narrator and her new teaching colleague Sheba, but Sheba's husband, the headmaster, a teacher infatuated with Sheba, and a 15-year-old student. Each believes their reasons are sincere, but are all entrenched in variations of self-deception. As Barbara says, in one of the most tellingly human things I've ever heard in a movie, "It takes courage to recognize the real as opposed to the convenient."
Dench and Blanchett, as Barbara and Sheba, share not only a gift for deep behavioral detail but a skill at withholding or telegraphing charm and beauty, as required. This may be one of the numerous reasons why they're as compelling as they are. It's definitely part of why this is some of their finest work. It's part of the drama's mechanism. Were Sheba not the breed of beauty she is, a naive, impressionable, coddled pixie, then we couldn't appreciate how intensely Barbara wants her. It's not exactly love so much as controlling, envious fixation on Sheba's stunning upper-class ease. And were Barbara not a teakettle of seclusion boiling through decades of disillusionment, we couldn't identify with how distorted the manifestation of that affection becomes.
That's the marvel of the movie: It's about the venomous influence of loneliness, viewed through a tale of two people in love. But unfortunately for both, not with one another. Sheba becomes smitten with a cute but cagey student. Played with what seems like natural hyper-confidence by Andrew Simpson, he sees an occasion in the way she looks at him. She has no clue of how defenseless she truly is. It's not only dishonest and unethical, she tells herself, it's totally ludicrous, but when he cups her face and says, "You're beautiful, Miss," she melts.
Barbara, meanwhile, fosters an obsession in her diary, relating thoughts precariously bordering on fantasy. Barbara's seclusion within the school is total, but Sheba is somebody who hasn't experienced her acidity. Barbara can smother someone with good turns and not be rejected. She helps Sheba win control of her students. "One soon learns that teaching is crowd control. We're a branch of social services." Sheba asks her to Sunday roast, where Barbara describes Sheba's family with characteristically rancorous humor. Dench's delivery of these delectably spiteful lines is an triumph in vocal meticulousness and tone that is its own prize. Even when this apparent ice queen drops minute words of vulnerability like "Is that why she hasn't returned my calls?" there's an extra intensity in how strongly we can all relate to the insecurities of her inner voice.
There are giftedly handled, extraordinarily candid scenes of rage, humiliation and disgrace, and cruel physical and emotional clashes of immense force. The teachers are somewhat caricatured, but that's because they're filtered through Barbara's misanthropic viewpoint. If it's her omniscient voice we're hearing, it's through her omniscient eyes we're seeing what she describes, and it's the figures who allow her access to their humanity who have profundity and delicacy in their depictions. A wholly earnest Dench brings to Barbara that frigid reserve that's somehow one with a despairing need for consolation and affection. Early on, Sheba is basically an alluring figurine, watched from afar. When our voyeuristic chronicler discovers Sheba's business with the student, Sheba grows immense dimension.
We start to see Sheba's own manner of advantaged lonesomeness or just tedium. "Marriage, kids, it's wonderful," she presumingly explains, "but it doesn't give you meaning." Blanchett brilliantly uses her character's advantages to betray her. The grim lesson she's about to learn from Barbara seems belated, even valuable. People like Sheba, according to Barbara, and I'm sure you'll agree, think they know loneliness, but they know nothing of planning one's whole weekend around a laundry errand, or being so continually untouched that the inadvertent sweep of a stranger's hand ignites years of sexual longing.
What I adore about the film is this discerningly intricate moral kaleidoscope weaved in completely modern domestic terms. It's going on in your neighborhood, not just Islington. There are scandals like this every year, and we dismissively conjecture from what little we gather. The cunning concept here is that we're seeing it through the sieve of Barbara, and whose transgressions transcend contemporary know-it-all assumptions.
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