Now streaming on:
Matthew J. Saville's directorial debut "Juniper" is a fairly predictable work, one in which most viewers will be able to see every dramatic revelation and moment of emotional catharsis a mile away. But it still works, due almost entirely to the great Charlotte Rampling, one of the most commanding screen presences of our time and one synonymous with edgy and offbeat material (her filmography runs the gamut from “The Night Porter” and “Zardoz” to multiple excursions with François Ozon). She brings a refreshing tartness to "Juniper" that keeps it from sinking entirely into gooey sentimentality.
Set in New Zealand, the film’s initial focus is on Sam (George Ferrier), a troubled young man still reeling from the recent death of his mother. His father, Robert (Marton Csokas), has decided to ship him off to boarding school, where he's constantly acting out and getting into trouble. After yet another incident, Robert brings him home with news—his own estranged mother, the legendary war photographer and gin enthusiast Ruth (Rampling) has broken her leg back in England, and she, along with her devoted nurse, Sarah (Edith Poor), will be coming to stay with them to recover. Needless to say, Sam isn't enthused about the arrival of someone he's never met who will be staying in his mother’s bedroom. He's even less happy when, as soon as she is ensconced, Robert goes off to London on business, essentially abandoning both his mother and son at the same time.
Not surprisingly, Ruth isn't thrilled with her predicament or the current arrangement either—when the well-meaning Sarah brings a priest around, Ruth chases him off with a bribe and a few choice vulgarities. And when Sam deliberately waters down her gin, she responds by bouncing the glass off his head. However, as they're forced to spend more time together, the two gradually discover they have more in common than they might have initially suspected, and a bond begins to grow between them. Of course, this hard-earned bit of emotional peace cannot last. And so arrives a tragic, if not wholly unexpected, turn in the final act that forces the two to come to terms with their lives and their respective relationships with Robert before time runs out for both of them.
There's probably not a major plot development in “Juniper” one couldn't glean from hearing a one-line description of the plot. There are also a number of hiccups in Saville’s screenplay that bear the sometimes-awkward mark of a first-time filmmaker—the occasional presence of a horse that used to belong to Sam’s late mother is far too symbolic for its own good, and the troubled relationship between Robert and Ruth is undeveloped. And yet, while the film never quite transcends its familiar trappings, it does occasionally offer enough of a spin on them to make them reasonably effective.
Although undeniably sentimental throughout, Saville laces the material with dark humor that prevents mawkishness from taking over. I also liked what was done with the nurse character, who is initially set up as a sanctimonious type determined to bring salvation to Ruth, whether she wants it or not, but is then allowed to develop into a real and genuinely likable character. The same thing goes for Sam, who is pretty much insufferable early on but ends up growing on you. That's thanks in no small part to Ferrier's performance, who manages to avoid most of the cliched tormented youth behavior you might expect in a film of this type.
That said, the key factor to "Juniper"'s success is Rampling, and while this will probably not go down as one of the peak moments of her long career, I can't think of another current actress who could have made it work as well as she does. Rampling perfectly embodies her character's sardonic nature and takes aspects that might have been forced and unconvincing in the hands of others—the glass bouncing or a sequence in which she invites a group of Sam’s friends over for a party and smokes pot with them, dryly remarking that she’s had better—and makes them plausible. At the same time, she deftly handles the more dramatic material—such as her quiet rage at seeing her wide-spanning existence being reduced to a wheelchair and a couple of rooms due to her infirmities. Without getting too sappy, she creates a believable screen relationship with Ferrier that prevents the film from being another exercise in watching a legendary actor running circles around a less-seasoned performer.
While "Juniper" as a whole is not great, it has enough wit and intelligence to be better than it sounds. Most of all, it has Rampling, as captivating as ever; she proves once again that she can single-handedly take somewhat dubious material and make it eminently watchable.
Now playing in theaters.
Charlotte Rampling as Ruth
Marton Csokas as Robert
George Ferrier as Sam
Edith Poor as Nurse Sarah
Carlos Muller as Donk
Tāne Rolfe as James
Cameron Carter-Chan as Shaggas