At her brilliant best, Dench gives a performance that may surprise even her most ardent fans. This is a beautifully observed characterisation with dark and quite sinister overtones. That she also brings such vulnerability and sympathy to a woman who manipulates and dominates everyone around her is an outstanding achievement. Cate Blanchett is equally good as her would-be best friend Sheba Hart; an attractive and touching character, even if her choices may be more than a little questionable.
The film follows the relationship between two women, one a lonely teacher working in a run-down inner-city secondary school and the other a younger, slightly bohemian colleague who allows herself to be drawn into an affair with a 15-year old pupil. Barbara (Dench) puts all her thoughts and feelings down in a diary and, on discovering her new friend’s secret, uses the knowledge to try and draw the other woman into her solitary world. There are strong lesbian overtones, but this is as much a story of lonely people desperately trying to connect in any way they can.
The film, classily directed by Richard Eyre, doesn’t condone the wayward, if not downright immoral, behaviour of the characters but doesn’t condemn it either. If it raises questions about what is acceptable, it certainly provides no answers. Rather it respects the audience by allowing us to make up our own minds.
Due to the skill of both the writing (a good deal of credit goes to the original author as well as the screenwriter) and the acting, this is a funny as well as slightly disturbing film. Humour often undercuts the seriousness on display, with some well-timed comedy lines and meticulous, very truthful acting.
There are scenes of excruciating awkwardness, such as when Dench, whose beloved cat has just died, tries to exert pressure on Blanchett to give up her son’s school play to be with her. Sheba is torn between wanting to comfort her friend and being at an important family occasion while Barbara piles the agony on to an almost unbearable level. It’s a fine example of the emotional intensity that Eyre draws from the scenario.
Supporting the leads is a team of stalwarts – Bill Nighy as Sheba’s dull older husband, Michael Maloney as the stiff headmaster and Phil Davis as another teacher who plays a key role in the unravelling of the situation. Julia Mackenzie, as Barbara’s sister, has a lovely scene with Dench, beautifully played by both actors, in which she tries to reach out and make a long overdue connection.
A thriller of a kind, this is a film about character as much as plot. It’s a terrific story fleshed out brilliantly by all involved. A great score by Philip Glass, no less, helps build the tension. Screenwriter Patrick Marber achieves something quite extraordinary by putting his own stamp on the story while remaining faithful to the source material. Heller’s novel is something of a page-turner but, for me, this is that rare thing, a film version that improves on the book.
Good British movies don’t come along that often – but this is certainly one of them.