Young New Zealander Sam (George Ferrier) is stuck in the worst phase of adolescence: old enough to know the world outside his depleted family home, young enough that he cannot do a thing to change his situation. After he is kicked out of boarding school, grief and rage flash through in equal measure as he struggles with a dead mother and (often physically, always emotionally) distant father.
When this distant patriarch brings his own mother, Ruth (Charlotte Rampling), across continents to stay with them despite her broken leg and their own acrimonious mother-son relationship, this new potential elderly figure of authority seems precisely what Sam does not need. She drinks pitcher upon pitcher of gin and water (mixed 50/50, and can tell when she has been cheated of her alcohol) and seems hell-bent on making her presence as unpleasant as possible.
The audience quickly sees that Ruth’s prickliness and blunt demands are born out of her ageing state and current disability – she needs help with every aspect of her life, and she will not suffer in silence to not inconvenience her son or grandson. In a world where the elderly are often banished to care homes when their needs are too great, Ruth is a refreshing picture of a woman who carves unapologetic space in the world. Even as George storms and sulks through his new living arrangement, the sense that he has met someone who matches his vitality is pervasive. More importantly, what delicately and beautifully evolves in their uneasy truce is the sense that both have met another who understands sorrow. Finding ways to live with grief while celebrating every moment of life forms the cornerstone of this remarkable cinematic May-December friendship.
Director and writer Matthew Saville has said that George is based on himself as a teenager. Ruth’s dramatic, tragic past as a war photographer is somewhat modelled on Martha Gelhorn, Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. Should (heaven forbid) Charlotte Rampling retire from acting after Juniper, the film would be a perfect send-off, a swan song for a career as bold, uncompromising, and unafraid as the acerbic grandmother she inhabits here. She continues her specialization in wanting women, bringing dignity and self-determination to Ruth’s every choice even as those become less and less available to her.
Juniper has little that has not been explored on film before, especially as it moves towards an inevitable conclusion. Still, perhaps that is because it taps into a universal need for connection and reckoning with unfathomable loss. There are moments of ribald comedy that the audience – like George and Ruth – find naughty pleasure in, but the film and its central duo understand that the chance for a kind, meaningful connection is never regained once lost. In a world increasingly alienating, Juniper is a tonic as potent as Ruth’s refreshments.
Juniper had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is a Pennsylvanian transplant to Glasgow who writes about film, television, and opera. A lover of maximalism and musicals, much of her writing focuses on cross-media adaptation. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ludwig, Cabaret, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Moulin Rouge!. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie