Juniper is a drama with black comic edges about a fragmented family, and the unexpectedly life-affirming influence of its particularly tetchy matriarch. In the lead role is Charlotte Rampling, an actor blessed with an epically scornful side eye capable of withering a vase of flowers from across a room.
The film relies in no small degree on Rampling’s ability to deliver intensity from small gestures, because for most of the time she’s nearly immobile, rendered almost inert by a broken leg and a mysterious underlying health condition, while her temper is inflamed by copious amounts of gin served to her in large glass jugs.
The first feature from New Zealand writer-director Matthew J Saville (not to be confused with the Australian filmmaker Matt Saville), Juniper plays on the conventions of movies about families thrust together in trying circumstances, who learn to get over their differences only after some excruciating trial and error.
In particular, it’s about a cross-generational connection between Ruth and her grandson Sam (George Ferrier), a suicidal teen who attends a nearby private school and has never recovered from the death of his mother.
Sam’s athletic good looks and crown of golden hair give off the aura of a confident private-school jock, but this is a film where appearances deceive, and Sam is troubled in his privilege — while Ruth, in turn, is the unlikely figure to pull him out of his malaise.
Set in the 90s, the film unfolds in a grand, if unkempt house somewhere green and leafy in New Zealand. This family is wealthy, clearly, and when Ruth arrives from her home in England after a considerable absence and in failing health, it initially appears like she might be the direct link to a moneyed bloodline in the Old Country.
Ruth hath an unconventional past, as a war correspondent who once traveled the globe witnessing some of the best and worst of humanity. The experience scarred her, we will learn, but it also earned her valuable wisdom.
Her drinking, as well as her bullying, seem to be a manifestation of some sort of PTSD, long left simmering and unaddressed. Her grandson, who is left to help look after her while his father (an excellent but mostly off-screen Marton Csokas) is called away to England, becomes the chief target of her rancour.
The two are destined to become unlikely friends, but it takes time. As often occurs in scripts about grumpy old people and their influence on teenagers with their lives ahead of them, Ruth’s abrasiveness serves a purpose, even if it’s not initially clear.
Hal Ashby’s 1971 absurdist black comedy Harold and Maude dealt with some of these cross-generational currents — including teen depression — with a little more imagination and less predictability. It would have been nice if Saville’s film didn’t conform quite so obediencely to the redemptive notes of its final act.
But Rampling makes it worth watching, even if you sense where it’s all heading. The role recalls her performance in another predominantly housebound film, Francois Ozon’s 2003 mystery Swimming Pool, where she played an irritable British author trying to write her next novel, clashing with the young, feisty daughter of her French publisher.
Saville doesn’t opt for any of that film’s dreamy Hitchcockian intrigue, but he does exploit the house’s rambling grandness, with its shadowy rooms and thresholds that offer views onto the verdant, slightly Gothic New Zealand countryside.
Downbeat indie rock and subtle zoom lenses help build an atmosphere of melancholy and cloistered tension, which extends to glimpses of Sam’s posh high school with its dark hallways and neurotic orderliness.
Saville succeeds in creating an emotional authenticity to Ruth and Sam’s difficult relationship, too, although it’s a pity he doesn’t linger in their mutually disturbed stage for longer.
As Rampling guides the film into its eventual emotional thaw, along the way she displays a range that occasionally surprises — in one especially poignant scene dragging herself ungracefully across the floor to get to a jug of booze.
Rampling is one of the great actors of her generation who remains a vital presence in anything she does. Quintessentially English but inexorably linked to European cinema (she’s lived and worked in France for decades) she possesses a sharpness and nuance that have never deserted her through the various stages of her career.
After starting out as a model, she had her first roles in English movies during the swinging 60s before moving to the continent, becoming synonymous with the 70s peak of European auteur cinema in films such as Visconti’s The Damned and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter.
Her work ethic and versatility have underwritten a prolific career since, and despite her professional Eurocentrism, she gained an Academy Award nomination for the 2015 drama 45 Years, and is continuing her role in the Hollywood behemoth Dune (part two releases next year), where she brings a welcome gravitas.
At the center of this modest, likeable New Zealand drama, she emanates a rich, layered sense of character. If you consider that Saville barely gives the audience much more than a few mocked up photos from Ruth’s past, and just a couple of backstory anecdotes, it’s a tribute to Rampling’s subtly embodied acting that the character emerges so fully formed.
As shadows of regret and anger in her performance give way to warmer accents of love and kindness, not to mention a rascally appetite for fun, she makes the film’s slightly worn conceit believable, and even inspires a lingering fondness.
Juniper is in cinemas now.