Confession: I love Charlotte Rampling. I have always loved her, since I first grew entranced while watching her early screen appearances as Lynn Redgrave’s bitchy roommate in Georgy Girl (1966), and, especially, in James Salter’s sensitive 1969 drama Three, in which she played an alluring girl who breaks up the relationship between two best-friend American college students on a summer vacation in the South of France. Three is a brilliant, nuanced film so obscure that few people ever saw it. It has never been released on home video, but you can find it on You Tube. It launched a unique career in films that has broken new ground in works by demanding directors of value and taste from Luchino Visconti to Woody Allen. Now, at 77, on the rare occasion when Charlotte Rampling does come out of semi-retirement from her home in Paris to appear in a movie, it is a moment that should be accompanied by fireworks.
JUNIPER ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Such an occasion is Juniper, a new work from New Zealand in which she burns a hole through the screen in another of her captivating claims to an otherwise unexceptional role, devouring every frame like raw sirloin. She plays Ruth, a celebrated war correspondent and photojournalist forced reluctantly by age and illness into retirement. After a bad fall that has left her with a broken leg, her grown son Robert (Marton Csokas, so wonderful opposite Ian McKellan and Natasha Richardson in the harrowing 2005 British film Asylum), who has been estranged from his mother for years, transports her to the remote family farm to heal, and forces his handsome teenage son Sam (a stunning debut by New Zealand newcomer George Ferrier) to leave school and return home to take care of her.
A hostile, distrustful and challenging relationship between a furious, raging grandmother and her unhappy grandson ensues. Sam blames Ruth for his mother’s misery before she died and doesn’t want to be there. He hardly knows “the old bitch,” but he grudgingly agrees to relieve her long-suffering nurse’s duties as long as he doesn’t have to talk to her. No wonder. Ruth is acerbic, demanding, implacable, and mean as a cobra, even in her infirmity, grounded in her wheelchair and sipping gin all day. Predictably, the movie, tenderly directed by Victor Saville, is about how these divergent worlds come to a gradual meeting point on the protractor of life.
Don’t expect any surprises. You know where the narrative is going from the minute Ruth arrives, and the emotional upheavals only add to the over-all message the film delivers about the importance of healing fractured family dynamics. As Ruth gradually melts, I melted with her, and the eventual maturity Sam displays is poignantly examined by first-time director Saville in his equally compelling screenplay. Of course it goes without saying that Ms. Rampling triumphantly reigns over the material in myriad ways. No longer the great beauty of her youth, she is nevertheless still mesmerizing and unique, and she’s forgotten nothing about craft. The distant look in her eyes belies the total concentration that keeps her focused. When she defrosts just long enough to urge her grandson to throw a drunken party for his friends, I wanted to be invited, too. Furiously smoking and drinking with the best of the men and teaching them how to properly fire a hunting rifle, she wins them over—and her grandson, too. By the time her cantankerous personality mellows, tragedy strikes and Sam is more than anxious to move her to the hospital by ambulance, his change of heart as he showers her with attention is honest and understandable. “Have I still got it?” “Yes, you have,” says her nurse. I second the motion and the case is closed. The final scene of resignation and the kind of freedom that made Ruth the kind of woman she used to be is genuinely touching.
I still don’t understand the title. I’m told it refers to the juniper berries used in the making of the potent gin Ruth savors from beginning to end, but that’s a stretch, if you ask me. I prefer to think of Juniper as chamber music—muted, soft, with a certain ache that lingers.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.