You'll cringe, but you won't look away

2008-10-02 08:05

Watching a film like this can never be a comfortable experience. You cringe for the characters as they rush to self-destruction, you long to tell them there must be another way to live their lives, but the power of Richard Eyre's direction of Zoe Heller's subtle psychological drama is that what is coming has a terrifying inevitability.

The plot concerns Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), an ineffectual art teacher with a fey manner who joins a tough London school. She seems idealistic and is beautiful and catches the attention of staff and kids alike. Among those with an eye on her is Barbara Covett (Judi Dench), the tough, cynical history teacher, feared by pupils and colleagues.

Barbara keeps a diary, a device that is used to keep the plot moving, and we soon learn that her brisk façade hides a deep vulnerability, intense longings, delusions and a streak of ferocious meanness. Sheba, on the other hand, quickly proves to be one of those for whom the grass is always going to be greener on the other side and who is prepared to risk everything for instant gratification. It is going to be a titanic clash.

One of the greatest strengths of the film is that the audience is never allowed to relax into easy sympathy for the main characters. We soon know that Sheba has a Downs Sydrome son and has spent many years devoting herself to him. But now he is in a good school, and she also has a husband (the ever-reliable Bill Nighy) who is kind, trusting and supportive. And Barbara, despite her vulnerabilities, is also her own worst enemy. The moral ambiguities are never downplayed - the audience has to confront them.

The other thing that raises this film to a very high level indeed is the acting. Dench is extraordinarily powerful as the sardonic and self-deluded Barbara. Few actresses of her age and attainments are prepared to be seen so cruelly, and while Helen Mirren's queen was a great Oscar performance, Dench's Barbara goes one better. And Blanchett matches her, scene for scene.

It makes for compelling watching.

It is also a relief to see that Nu Metro at Cascades seems to be climbing out of a cinematic mire with two major Oscar contenders - Dreamgirls and this one - currently showing, along with two very recent Bollywood releases.

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