Charlotte Rampling has made films all over the world over the course of her long career, and she has one of her best roles in the New Zealand movie, Juniper, which received its U.S. premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival this month. The film suffers from a certain predictability, but it is well-made and affecting, and positively thrilling when Rampling is on screen.
She plays Ruth, an obstinate, hard-drinking woman who lands in New Zealand from England after her son (Marton Csokas) decides to bring her there to recuperate from a broken leg. But he has a secondary motive; he has a sneaking suspicion that she might be helpful to his unruly teenage son, Sam (George Ferrier), who has been thrown out of boarding school and who is still grieving over the death of his mother several months earlier.
Rampling seizes the spotlight in bittersweet Kiwi drama.
Sam rebels at the idea of giving up his room to the grandmother he has never known, and he has no appetite for a role as even part-time caretaker. Yet Sam and Ruth find they are well matched by a certain dark view of life, and the rapport that they come to share surprises both of them.
First-time feature director Matthew Saville largely stays away from sentimentality to highlight black humor instead. He has a good feel for character and also for the atmosphere of rural New Zealand, outside of Auckland. Cinematography by Marty Williams is definitely one of the film’s assets, but this is more of a chamber piece than a visual epic.
Exchanges between Sam and Ruth are extremely well-written. Gradually we learn that she once had a storied career as a war photographer. (Saville has said that he modeled the character in part on war correspondent Martha Gelhorn, who was Ernest Hemingway’s third wife.) Her anger at the narrowing of her once-expansive world has led to the fury that she vents toward most of the people in her life, while she displays a sardonic sense of humor and indulges an appetite for alcohol. (The juniper berries that dot the landscape happen to be the primary ingredient in gin, Ruth’s drink of choice.)
Ruth’s relationship with her son might have been more fully developed. Csokas (who has appeared in such films as The Debt, The Equalizer, Loving and Ridley Scott’s recent The Last Duel) hasn’t been given enough material to build a three-dimensional character. On the other hand, Edith Poor as Ruth’s nurse, who is trying without much success to convert Ruth to religion during her convalescence, makes the most of her scenes as foil to the more acerbic characters.
Ferrier is a new face in New Zealand films, and he makes a striking impression. Handsome and charismatic, he also conveys a convincing sense of bitterness and a dangerous tendency toward self-destruction. For the film to work, both of the actors must be commanding, and Ferrier makes a perfect foil to his older co-star. With luck he should have a promising future.
Rampling started in films as more of a striking presence than a great actress. In her first major role, in 1966’s Georgy Girl, she didn’t seem to have the acting chops of her co-stars Lynn Redgrave, James Mason and Alan Bates. But many top directors wanted to work with her, and she counted filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, John Boorman, Liliana Cavani, Sidney Lumet and even Woody Allen among her admirers. (She co-starred with Allen in 1980’s Stardust Memories.) Later she struck up fruitful collaborations with contemporary filmmakers like François Ozon, and she earned her first Oscar nomination when she was almost 70, in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, delivering a great performance that exuded bitterness as well as bemused intelligence. She is also on screen during this year’s Oscar season, in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.
Needless to say, that sci-fi extravaganza doesn’t give Rampling quite the same opportunity that she finds in a chamber drama like Juniper. She seizes the moment, demonstrating her star presence as well as a certain modesty and generosity in her willingness to share the screen with her co-stars. We can hope that Juniper eventually reaches more audiences around the world who will savor her performance.