Juniper. M, 95 minutes. 4 stars
Juniper is both a coming-of-age film and an end-of-the-line film.
Charlotte Rampling is predictably glorious as a miserable grandmother brought to the ends of the earth - rural New Zealand - to spend her days making the life of her estranged grandson equally miserable.
After breaking her leg in a fall, Ruth (Rampling) is brought with nurse Sarah (Edith Poor) in tow to the farm of her son Robert (Marton Csokas) in the hilly sheep country of New Zealand.
Ruth might have convalesced in her own home in England, but Robert might have ulterior motives in shipping her out, as his unruly son Sam (George Ferrier) has been sent home from boarding school for insubordinate behaviour.
Robert concocts a trip to Britain to help sort out Ruth's affairs, which leaves grandmother and grandson alone to fend for themselves.
Sam must learn to mix Ruth's drinks - a bottle of gin a day - but after enduring a particularly nasty lashing-out from the old woman, he is despondent.
He hasn't yet processed the death of his own mother a few years earlier, and this unpleasant woman taking over his mother's old room is shattering whatever remaining pleasant memories of home he held.
But detente comes in various forms as both realise they may be all each has in the world.
There are deeper and darker, quite contemporary themes also explored in this film, but spelling them out here would be too much of a spoiler.
That Rampling headlines this film reminds us that New Zealand, like Australia, still tends to import marketable international star power despite having plenty of our own. Or perhaps film has become more international and less parochial and common business sense kicks old complaints like that out the door these days.
Undeniably, Rampling commands attention now just as she did in The Night Porter in 1974. And while playing a convalescent with a leg calliper and a wheelchair, she is still a wonderfully rich sexual figure, acerbic and witty and a bit of fun.
Rampling's Ruth is a raw figure, burning with anger at the freedoms that age and infirmary has taken away after a lifetime of love affairs and parties, and this performance is one of Rampling's finest.
There are elements of that great French film Tati Danielle, where we the audience get to enjoy Rampling spraying her invectives at anyone who comes close enough.
She is a richly written figure, great work from first-time writer-director Matthew J. Saville.
Kiwi Saville is better known as an actor, with credits in many of those huge international productions that came out of Kiwiland, the ones with elves, the ones with gladiators, and the fun TV series The Almighty Johnsons.
After a handful of shorts to his credit, this is an impressive feature film debut.
His cinematographer, Martyn Williams, makes the most of the landscapes and the mercurial weather of the New Zealand hinterland.
Shots are beautifully framed and in particular the film's final scenes are spectacular.
Overcoming loss is explored through each of the characters.
Ferrier's Sam lacks the emotional maturity even to understand how to process his mother's death some years earlier, and Ferrier emotes a naive, lost quality. While Ruth might be toying with her grandson, the actress Rampling works subtly with young Ferrier in a cadenced interplay, and what a great experience it is for that young Kiwi actor so early in his career.
I feel like I've made this film sound quite miserable so far, but it also enjoys a cheeky humour. Ruth bribes Sam's young friends from neighbouring farms with the promise of a party of underage drinking to get them to work on fixing up the unloved farm's gardens, throwing into the mix some good Kiwi tunes and scenes of Rampling's wheelchair-bound woman's female gaze taking in the sights of young gentlemen.
My own bourbon-swilling, men-loving grandmother would have loved her.
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