No-nonsense history teacher and self-proclaimed “battle ax” Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), in her square suits and sensible shoes, looks disparagingly on the new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett.) She’s waif-like, beautiful, and thoroughly out of her league teaching in a public school. Sheba befriends Barbara, quickly opening up to the older woman. Barbara listens, she watches and waits, gradually coming to believe she’s found a kindred spirit in Sheba and the stage is set.
The acting Olympics crank into high gear when Barbara discovers Sheba’s affair with a student. Dench is absolutely fantastic as the spinster whose desperate loneliness and obsession drive her to manipulate the situation to her advantage. Dench gives a ferocious, fearless performance that comes right up to the edge, but never crosses over into caricature or hysterical melodrama.
Cate Blanchett more than holds her own against Dame Judi. Her Sheba is multi-layered and authentic, giving the film balance and elevating it from a one-woman-rant to a riveting drama. Bill Nighy is terrific as always, as Sheba’s husband, caught between a rock and a hard place.
Philip Glass wrote the soundtrack and it goes a long way to heightening the tension. His style is perfectly suited to the film’s mood. My only complaint is that at times, the score is a bit much, hitting the audience over the head when subtlety, or at least a lower volume, would have done as well. [****1/2 out of 5]