Judi Dench is Barbara Covett, a high school teacher who has aged into a bitter and disillusioned person. Most of the film is constructed out of her diary entries, which display a casual bitterness toward most people, for whatever reasons suit her pre-conceived notion of the world as a simple place full of simpletons. She dismisses her students as future shop clerks and service workers, muses on the near-pointlessness of the education she's meant to be providing them, and writes cruel things about her fellow teachers, especially Sue Hodge (Joanna Scanlan), who has the gall to be complacent. When a new teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) arrives at the school, she too is added to the list of people Barbara hates, as her high-class lifestyle indicates her desire to teach must mean she's condescending and self-serving, but Barbara's bile is short-lived.
Through subtle turns of phrase in her diary, it is almost immediately clear that Barbara is attracted to Sheba. Without much effort, her dismissive attitude toward Sheba is shifted to Sheba's family: her older husband, Richard (Bill Nighy), her teenage daughter Polly (Juno Temple), and her son, Ben (Max Lewis), who has Down's Syndrome. Barbara senses a thread of disillusionment or distance between Sheba and her home life and latches onto it, creating in her mind a sweater that is unraveling. Every friendly cup of coffee or family dinner the two share is evidence to Beth that Sheba is returning her affection, moments away from ditching her useless brood and falling in love with her. In truth, something much worse is occurring: Sheba has begun an affair with a 15-year-old student named Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), which Barbara discovers by accident one day, peering into her classroom.
The heart of the film is what follows these richly realized details of Barbara's twisted worldview. Although Eyre and Marber make Barbara the protagonist, and we hear her commentary on events, they are presented objectively to illustrate the difference between Barbara and Sheba's idea of their relationship. Furthermore, Eyre does occasionally skip away to follow Sheba entirely, including her first night with Steven, told in flashback. From there, the film becomes a fascinating chessboard in which Barbara hopes to leverage her knowledge of the affair into her own affair with Sheba, while Sheba provides further friendship to Barbara in return for Barbara's silence. Richard and Steven are also pawns, as well as Brian Bangs (Philip Davis), a fellow teacher who comes knocking on Barbara's door during a moment of emotional weakness. The film's strength lies in refusing to moralize much about Sheba's behavior, and when it does examine her failings, it's also through character, in a quiet, heartbreaking scene between Richard and Sheba where he expresses his frustration.
The performances by Dench and Blanchett are, of course, the core of the film, and both actresses are phenomenal. Some will point to the childishness of Barbara's vindictive side as simplistic, but it's a character choice, and the raw desperation of her loneliness, manifested in the notes of fantasy in her diary entries, is miraculous in its subtleties. Blanchett's miracle, comparatively, is how compassionately she plays Sheba's mistake. Sheba commits a crime, but Eyre is unafraid to capture the thrill of doing the wrong thing, one of Sheba's deeper motivations, and Blanchett finds a playful attitude. Without any stylistic signifiers to remind the viewer of how wrong her sex with Steven is, their moments tap into the viewer's memory of positive sex scenes in films, allowing them a route inside Sheba's mindset.
The film's first 80 minutes are somewhat deflated in its final 10, which naturally retreat from the escalating drama to find some sort of closure. It'd be fair to express reservations about whether the film clearly separates Barbara's loneliness and sexual orientation with regard to her behavior, especially given the epilogue, which feels as if it popped in out of more of a B-movie thriller than this one. When the film works, though, it's a complex portrait of a complicated situation, executed with skill and class by a number of veterans at the top of their game.
The Video and Audio
Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track has survived the years better. Most of the job is just to present Philip Glass' wonderful score with the richness and vibrancy it deserves, and it does that fine. None of the film's voice-over or dialogue scenes provide much of a challenge, nor the crowds of people that fill the school, and then later surround homes. Despite the packaging only listing the basics, the disc is loaded with language options: DTS 5.1 French, German, Japanese, and Italian, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Italian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, and some form of Chinese subtitles are also included.