Dir: Richard Eyre
Star: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Simpson, Bill Nighy
From Jackass 2 to this multi-Oscar nominee in less than 24 hours. Never say our tastes aren’t diverse, especially since we enjoyed both. Here, it’s the performances which kick ass – much as you’d expect, given that Dench and Blanchett have nine Oscar nominations between them [and Blanchett seems likely to make it ten this year]. They both play teachers, yet are opposite in just about every way; one is a self-described “battle-ax” spinster Barbara (Dench, duh), the other, Sheba (Blanchett), has a husband, family, and is struggling to find her feet as she returns to the profession. Despite these differences, they strike up a friendship. At least, until Sheba’s indiscretion with one of her pupils (Simpson) is discovered by Barbara, who realises that this gives her the leverage to make herself utterly indispensable and – in her twisted mind – endear herself totally to Sheba. Needless to say, blackmail, no matter how subtle, is hardly the way to win friends and influence people.
Normally, the use of voice-over is a lazy cop-out for the film-maker, but here it becomes a necessity because Barbara is utterly two-faced, presenting a mask of neutrality to her colleagues, and revealing her true thoughts only to her diaries. Dench is beyond good, combining gentility and ferocious malice in a way I haven’t seen since Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons – that may be the movie’s closest spiritual counterpart, though Blanchett’s character is no match for Dench’s. Credit is also due to Bill Nighy, who manages to make us forget entirely his turns in the likes of Underworld and Shaun of the Dead (the latter, no mean feat) as Sheba’s dutiful husband, who perhaps senses the inevitable coming, just not from the direction he expects. The result will shatter lives, if perhaps not the one who deserves it most.