A veteran high school teacher befriends a younger art teacher, who is having an affair with one of her 15-year-old students. However, her intentions with this new "friend" also go well beyond platonic friendship.
In this small-scale drama, Judi Dench both narrates and stars as Barbara Coveet, a teacher reaching the end of here career in a rough London comprehensive school. A stone is thrown into the calm pool of the teacher’s common room in the form of the beautiful Sheba (Cate Blanchett), a new and inexperienced art teacher. While the male teachers sniff around the already married Sheba, Barbara shows her kindness and befriends her. Soon she is invited to meet Sheba’s chaotic and rather bohemian family: her older husband Richard (Bill Nighy), an academic, her grumpy teenage daughter and Sheba’s son, who has Down Syndrome. Barbara is an acute observer of others yet lives a lonely life in the company of her elderly cat.
Things take an unexpected turn when Barbara discovers that Sheba has been giving after-hours art lessons to a talented and charismatic fifteen year old student, who comes from a poor background. Sheba is clearly drawn to the boy, but when Barbara suspects that drawing classes are not all that Sheba is teaching the boy, she sees a way to tie herself more deeply to Sheba, who fascinates her. Barbara has an unrealistic expectation of the depth of her friendship with Sheba, and wants more from it than Sheba can, or is willing to, reciprocate. This creates tensions with Richard, and when Barbara feels let down by Sheba at a crucial moment the story takes a darker turn. Indeed does Barbara, our narrator, have a hidden past of her own?
This little film is beautifully acted, the trio of experienced stars making the most of an economical script, drawing the audience into the ever more turbulent lives of the main characters. There are enough layers of ambiguity for us to question who to sympathise with, and even the young schoolboy may not be as innocent as he first appears. The trick of the untrustworthy narrator is hardly a new one but it works neatly here. This is a film that thoroughly deserved its four Oscar nominations.