This movie is really relatable to me due to its themes of friendship, obsession, loneliness, abandonment forbidden desires, not feeling fulfilled, and betrayal.
Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) is a sixty-something history teacher who teaches at the St. George’s which is a comprehensive school in London. She lives a very solitary life; she’s never been married, and she has no children. The only real friend she has is her diary, which she uses to express all of her thoughts. She is a very jaded individual, and she has lots of contempt for most people, but above all, she is searching for a person to be her one true friend.
On the first day of the new term, Barbara meets Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), an art teacher. Barbara is immediately entranced by Sheba and concluded that “She’s the one I’ve been waiting for.”
One day, Sheba tries to break up a fight between a boy named Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson) and another boy. She struggles, but Barbara, who is much more experienced in teaching and dealing with students than Sheba is, manages to quickly shut down the fight. Sheba wholeheartedly shakes Barbara’s hand in appreciation, and the two women become close, spending a lot of time together in the school when not in the classroom. This culminates in Sheba inviting Barbara to her house for lunch on a Sunday afternoon. Barbara prepares for the lunch, making sure that she looks her best, and shows up.
The door is opened by Sheba’s husband Richard (Bill Nighy), and Barbara is shocked by how old he is; she thinks that she has the wrong house, but then she sees Sheba. Sheba has two children: Polly (Juno Temple), a sullen teenager, and Ben (Max Lewis) who is free-spirited and friendly and who has Down syndrome.
After lunch, Barbara joins Sheba in Sheba’s art studio. Sheba confesses that she feels so dissatisfied with her life, despite having a loving family. Barbara expresses complete empathy. The two women become closer than ever.
Sometime later, during Guy Fawkes Night celebrations at St. George’s, Barbara witnesses Sheba engaging in sexual intercourse with Steven Connolly who is only fifteen years old. She is horrified, but she soon realizes that she can very well use this situation to her advantage.
The next day, Barbara calls Sheba to confront her over what she saw. They later meet at a pub, and Sheba tells the whole story. After helping Steven with with his art project alone, he began to follow her wherever she went. She initially ignored him, but she began to be intrigued. Combined with feeling little satisfaction with her life, and feeling the temptation to do something that is highly taboo and wrong, she began to accept Steven’s advances, and this culminated with the beginning of an inappropriate sexual relationship. The fight Steven had with another boy was Steven defending Sheba against the boy’s inappropriate remarks about her. When Barbara helped break up the fight, and she and Sheba became friends immediately afterwards, Sheba had already been having sex with Steven.
Sheba is afraid that Barbara will tell, but Barbara agrees to keep it a secret on the condition that Sheba ends the affair with Steven. Sheba agrees, but shortly afterwards, on Christmas Day, Steven, who had been constantly texting Sheba, despite her not responding, shows up to her house; Sheba has a tryst with him in secret, away from her family.
In the meantime, things seem to be going well, but when Barbara learns that Sheba and Steven are still having sex, she gets angry and expresses feeling of betrayal. Sheba finally ends all contact with Steven except in school. Barbara is there to comfort Sheba in her devastation.
The two women grow closer and closer. Barbara begins spending more and more time at Sheba’s house, and practically becomes a member of the family. This leads to tensions. On the day that Ben is perform in a school play as a wizard, Barbara shows up, asking for Sheba to accompany her to the vet so that her cat can be euthanized. Richard is angry to see Barbara, having gotten tired of seeing her at their house all the time. Sheba refuses to accompany Barbara.
Some time after Barbara buries her cat, a colleague shows up asking if Sheba may be romantically interested in him. Barbara replies by saying that she’s heard rumors of Sheba having sex with a student. Before long, the school is informed. Sheba is fired, and charged with statutory rape. News journalists begin harassing Sheba. Steven’s mother shows up and physically attacks Sheba. Her husband kicks her out of the house. Her son is sad to see his mother go. Her daughter is disgusted that her own mother would have sex with a boy around her age.
Barbara takes Sheba in, feeling happy that Sheba is now isolated. Sheba soon finds Barbara’s diaries, which reveal that Barbara was the one who exposed her affair with Sheba to the public. This leads to a fight between the two of them, and culminates with Sheba reconciling with her family and returning home.
When the headmaster learns that Barbara knew about the affair, and that she waited months to tell someone about it, he forces her to retire early. The headmaster also notes that Barbara has a track record of poor friendships. She was once friends with a former colleague named Jennifer Dodd, but the relationship was very unhealthy on Barbara’s end; Jennifer eventually moved away, and she threatened legal action against Barbara if she tried to reach out to her again.
Eventually, Sheba is sentenced to eight months. Barbara sees a woman sitting on a park bench, reading a newspaper that has a headline about Sheba’s sentence. Barbara says that she knew Sheba, albeit not very well. The woman introduces herself as Annabel, and Barbara invites her to a classical music concert.
I’d been interested in this movie ever since I heard of it through researching Cate Blanchett. I finally saw it a few years ago. I was surprised by how much I could relate to Barbara. Like her, I’ve been alone for the majority of my life, and I’ve never really had any close friends. I suppose that no matter what makes us different, we can all agree that the majority of us want somebody that we can be close to. In addition to being alone, I’ve had those friendships where things did not work out, due to all sorts of reasons. At times, I’ve gotten too close, and I have driven people away due to apparently wanting more than the other person was able to or willing to give.
I think what this film says is that boundaries in relationships are important. One must be sure to never cross them otherwise things just won’t end well.