“You live in a flat off the Archway Road and think you’re Virginia Woolf?” says disgraced teacher Cate Blanchett to colleague Judi Dench, on discovering through the latter’s spiteful memoirs how much a part she has played in her very public downfall. Adapted from Zoe Heller’s 2003 Booker-shortlisted novel, Richard Eyre’s film could be accused of having similar delusions of grandeur. Indeed, for all its Oscar-winning stars, forbidden desires and Hitchcockian music cues, this is a rather more mundane affair than a story involving betrayal, blackmail and sexual obsession might suggest.
True, Eyre and screenwriter Patrick Marber are merely mirroring Heller’s device of an unreliable narrator – Dench’s Barbara Covett, resident battle-axe at a crumbling north London comprehensive – who elevates her humdrum, solitary existence through the secret diaries that provide the film’s acerbic narration. And this works admirably when the action is seen from her perspective, Barbara’s kindly solicitude towards Blanchett’s “wispy novice” masking a waspish contempt for the “bourgeois bohemia” which the Little Fish star shares with her considerably older husband (Bill Nighy) and their molly-coddled children. The problems start, though, when the story is told without that literary filter, placing undue strain on the character inconsistencies and narrative implausibilities on which the script depends.
The real pressure, however, is on Blanchett to make her drippy hippie Sheba’s outlawed lust for a swarthy 15-year-old pupil believable enough to be worth risking her marriage, career and liberty for. Try as she might, she can’t, although ruddy-faced newcomer Andrew Simpson’s laughably uncharismatic object of desire doesn’t help, even when telling her he’s been “dreaming about your hot, sweet cunt all morning.” (The lad deserves an ASBO for that line alone.)
So why is Eyre’s drama up for three Golden Globes, with Oscar nominations bound to follow? Look no further than Dench, everyone’s favourite dame seizing the nettle that is her prickly, vindictive antagonist and turning her into a vivid, tragic force of nature. On paper Barbara is your archetypal bunny-boiler, a malevolent stalker with psychotic lesbian tendencies. In the corpulent, frumpy flesh, though, she is that juiciest of filmic creations: the baddie you can’t help rooting for.