Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) is the new art teacher at St. George's, a none-too-posh London school. She is befriended by veteran history teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), who warns her not to get her hopes too high. Sheba may dream of changing lives, but "teaching is crowd control," says Barbara.
The women become friends, with Barbara frequently joining the Hart family for dinner (Bill Nighy, reliable as ever, has a nice supporting turn as Sheba's husband), but it soon becomes clear from Barbara's diary entries (which we hear in voice-over) that she has more than just friendship in mind. Exactly how much more isn't clear -- Barbara's far too repressed to think of herself as a lesbian, and seems vaguely repulsed at the idea of a sexual relationship -- but she's developing an interest in Sheba that is, at the very least, obsessive. "In a different, better era," she writes, "we would be ladies of leisure. We would be companions."
When Barbara discovers that Sheba has been having an affair with a 15-year-old student (played by Andrew Simpson, and what a pleasant surprise it is that Simpson actually looks like a teenager instead of a 25-year-old trying desperately to look younger), she realizes that she can use Sheba's scandal to her own advantage, and begins more actively manipulating the situation in an attempt to gain the "companionship" for which she so desperately longs.
Patrick Marber's adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel is a sharp, lively, pitch-black comedy with a pair of fabulous star roles in Sheba and Barbara. Blanchett does fine work, capturing both Sheba's willfully naive refusal to accept that she's done anything so terribly wrong ("For God's sake," she says, "he's almost 16!"), and her devastation when the scandal causes her to lose everything that matters to her.
But the movie belongs to Judi Dench, who is unstoppably ferocious as Barbara. She's made up to look every bit of her age (compare to her appearance in Mrs. Henderson Presents or Casino Royale; she looks a good decade older here), and her voice drips with bitterness and condescension as she talks about her students (all of them destined to be "plumbers and shop clerks") or the "bourgeois bohemia" of the Harts' marriage. The role could be condemned as just another revival of the stock lesbian-predator character that was once so popular; what elevates it above that, I think, is that we see not only Barbara's viciousness and cruelty, but her loneliness and suffering. There are cliche elements to the character, to be sure, but she's never just the cliche.
The movie goes a touch over the top, perhaps, in the final act, after Sheba commits what Barbara perceives as an act of betrayal -- the final confrontation between the two comes perilously close to being an outtake from Dynasty -- but Dench and Blanchett inhabit their characters so solidly that even that silliness feels grounded in reality. Two top-notch actresses in peak form; a crisp, vivid script; and (unlike so many of the year-end movies) an efficiently told story that clocks in at roughly 90 minutes -- go see it, already.