My 2006 top-ten ranking: 8
Risk of spoilers: Let’s just assume, okay?
“Everybody fucking fantasizes about it!” screams Bill Nighy as Richard Hart to Kate Blanchett as Sheba Hart after finding out about her indiscretions with a student, “that’s why they call it a fantasy!” In this film, everybody does fantasize about it — it being the thought of consuming younger people sexually as a balm for your troubles. Richard was once Sheba’s teacher and is 20 years her senior, although that fantasy seems to have calmed into average domestication with an unaverage (developmentally disabled) son.
Judi Dench as Barbara Covett (get it?) fantasizes about it, maneuvering Sheba into trusting her and awaiting her moment to strike, playing her manipulative hand with smooth aplomb.
And of course Sheba fantasizes about it, and then acts on that fantasy by the train tracks in a moment of adolescent adoration, a reliving of a romance that only a high schooler would find romantic. Nothing like the smell of creosote to trigger cupid and his piercing shafts.
Barbara is the pivot in this, playing a mother superior figure in her own mind, with unkind secret words written on the paper she uses to filter and scold the world. Her secreted derision and insults to the people around her obviously a defense to keep closed the gap of despair and loneliness felt by rejection and repressed sexuality. That she is both hateful and sympathetic on more than one level is a nod to Dench’s mastery of performance.
Blanchett — dressed up like a doe-eyed British clone of my hometown tabloidizoid Mary Kay Letourneau — is great in her blankness, her just-approaching-middle-age sadness. Sheba remembers fondly her teenage days at the Batcave listening to Siouxsie. Ironically she tries to introduce her young lover to the Banshees, a band from before he was born. A band her husband might have found juvenile and after his time.
Barbara plays Sheba off as a trust fund baby of no taste and no class — someone who has rejected the privilege wealth provided her to play the pseudo-bohemian, while still owning a handsome house with an art studio room-of-one’s-one in the back. That room is the heart of Sheba Hart — an artist who is facing the awful truth that creation itself doesn’t make you a better person, or even a whole person. She takes up teaching because of that, and look where that ends up.
It ends up in Barbara’s journal, where she parses every intention and plotline with a sneering self-satisfaction. The brilliance is in letting us see her heart on her face at the same time as the poison in her pen. This movie seems to be about the clash at the intersection of those two. It is, and about how a wealthy British woman can have an illicit affair with an underage lower class Irish kid.
But then it’s also about how these things happen and get moved past. Barbara finds a new target to swing her gaping desires at. Sheba finds a humility in just returning home. It’s almost as if nothing has happened. Almost.Where we saw it: Movie Theater | We deign to rate it: 90 outta 100