I watched the film last night and was blown away by Judi Dench's performance. It's unusual that a jaded ex film theory student like myself is blown away like that, and although I do truly always love Dame Judi, this was the penultimate character for her I thought.
Breathtakingly vicious and manipulative, her Barbara is as layered as any real live human being, unusual for a film script these days. In fact, the layers of each main character in the film, Barbara, Sheba and Steven, are peeled away like the skin of an onion-- as the film progresses we get deeper and deeper into their psyches and man, are they all twisted!
The are also all twisted up in the affair that art teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett) is carrying on with her seemingly abused 15 year old student, Steven. Lonely and intense fellow teacher Barbara befriends Sheba, who she alternatively loves and hates for her beauty and bourgeois sensibilities, and she uses their closeness to pull Sheba further and further into her web of neediness when she discovers the affair.
I hate to say this since the film shows the more pathetic sides of humanity, but this movie and its characters reminded me more of real life than most films. The secretiveness, the two-faced-ness, the desperation, the complication, the cat....it was all so dense and realistic! I loved that Barbara narrates the film and that we get to hear her innermost thoughts, which she carefully journals every night-- it's the ultimate gournol. She convinces herself that she knows all about Sheba's life and marriage and thoughts and feelings because she is so absorbed with wanting things her own way, seeing things her own way.
Each character completely justifies his or her actions to themselves, and it is incredible to watch. Judi already has an Oscar, but still, someone should have given her an honorary award this year for her insanely believable ferociousness and vulnerability in this film. She scares me now.