18 June 2024
Charlotte Ramplin in Juniper

Film Review – Juniper (2021)

As her acting career heads towards its 60th year, Charlotte Rampling has spent the past few years concentrating on significant supporting roles – memorably shrouded by a mesh veil in Dune, the ailing and haunted matriarch of The Little Stranger. But for her latest, Juniper, she makes a welcome return to the centre of the story, with a character and performance that come perilously close to putting everything and everybody else in her shadow.

Troubled by the recent death of his mother and angry at the world around him, teenager Sam (George Ferrier) has been expelled from boarding school. His father, Robert (Marton Csokas), decides to bring his own mother, Ruth (Rampling) to their New Zealand home to kelep an eye on the boy, while he’s away in England finalising family affairs. A strange choice: Sam and Ruth have never met, and she is recovering from a broken leg. But he suspects that the older, determined and demanding woman might help get his son back on an even keel. Initial and mutual hostility starts to give way as the two realise they have a similar view of life and they develop an understanding.

Despite the familiar coming of age and generation gap themes, first time feature director Matthew Saville has carefully given sentimentality a wide berth, concentrating on the prickly relationships at the centre of the story and the dark humour accompanying them. It’s all set against a sweeping rural New Zealand landscape: not an epic one – this is more of a chamber piece – but it provides a welcome respite from the gloomy interiors and is nicely captured by cinematographer Martyn Williams.

But what happens inside the house is dominated by Ruth, described by both son and grandson as “the old bitch”, a former war photographer who, unable to walk, has everybody at her beck and call and rules with a grating buzzer. Even with live-in nurse Sarah (Edith Poor) to look after her, she still needs Sam’s help and her stubborn refusal to give in to her physical limitations makes her the most exasperating of patients, even if she has “the constitution of a goat.” It’s a role tailor made for Rampling’s chilly exterior, one that conceals the independence and lust for life that took her to dangerous war zones. The combination of her performance and glimpses inside photo albums create a vivid impression of that previous life, with its passions and her love of drink, something she’s never lost and which now helps deaden the pain of her injury.

Newcomer Ferrier gives a spirited performance as a grandson who’s clearly inherited some of her fire but his is the only other character allowed to develop properly, with the all the others very much in second place. This is Rampling’s movie and there’s no shame in that. She seizes the opportunity and the character with both hands and carries everything else along with her, allowing us to be more tolerant of the predictable storyline than might otherwise be the case. It’s a piece of acting that deserves to be seen.

★★★


Drama | Cert: 15 | Parkland Distribution | UK cinemas from 23 September 2022 | Dir. Matthew Saville | Charlotte Rampling, George Ferrier, Marton Csokas, Edith Poor.


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