‘Juniper’ review: Charlotte Rampling burns a hole in the screen

Charlotte Rampling in ‘Juniper’. Greenwich Entertainment

Confession: I love Charlotte Rampling. I’ve always loved her, ever since I first got entranced watching her early movie performances as Lynn Redgrave’s bitchy roommate in Georgia girl (1966), and especially in James Salter’s sensitive 1969 drama Three, in which she played an attractive girl who breaks up the relationship between two best friends of American students during a summer vacation in the South of France. Three is a brilliant, nuanced film so obscure few people have ever seen it. It was never released on home video, but you can find it on You Tube. It launched a unique film career that broke new ground in works by discerning directors of value and taste, from Luchino Visconti to Woody Allen. Now, at age 77, on the rare occasion that Charlotte Rampling steps out of her Paris home to appear in a movie, that’s a moment that should be accompanied by fireworks.

JUNIPER ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Matthew J. Saville
Written by: Matthew J. Saville
Starring: Charlotte RamplingMatthew J. Saville, Martin Csokas
Duration: 94 minutes.

Such an opportunity is juniper, a new work from New Zealand in which she burns a hole through the screen in yet another of her captivating claims to an otherwise unremarkable role, devouring every frame like raw loin. She plays Ruth, a celebrated war correspondent and photojournalist reluctantly forced into retirement by age and illness. After a bad fall that left her with a broken leg, her grown son Robert (Marton Csokas, so great opposite Ian McKellan and Natasha Richardson in the gripping 2005 British film) has to Asylum)estranged from his mother for years, transports her to the remote family farm to heal, forcing his handsome teenage son Sam (a stunning debut from New Zealand newcomer George Ferrier) to drop out of school and return home to to take care of her.

A hostile, suspicious and challenging relationship develops between a furious, irate grandmother and her hapless grandson. 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 reluctantly agrees to take over her long-suffering nurse’s duties as long as he doesn’t have to talk to her. No wonder. Ruth is biting, demanding, unforgiving and vicious as a cobra even in her weakness, grounded in her wheelchair and drinking gin all day. As might be expected, the film, tenderly directed by Victor Saville, is about how these divergent worlds gradually meet on the protractor of life.

Don’t expect any surprises. You know where the story is going from the moment Ruth arrives, and the emotional upheavals only add to the overall message the film conveys about the importance of healing a fractured family dynamic. As Ruth gradually melts, I melted with her, and the eventual maturity Sam displays is poignantly explored by new director Saville in his equally compelling screenplay. It goes without saying, of course, that Ms. Rampling reigns triumphantly over the material in a myriad of ways. No longer the great beauty of her youth, she is nevertheless still enchanting and unique, and she has forgotten nothing of craft. The detached look in her eyes belies the total concentration that keeps her focused. When she thaws 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 men and teaching them how to properly fire a shotgun, she wins them over – and her grandson too. By the time her cantankerous personality softens, disaster strikes and Sam is more than eager to take her to the hospital by ambulance, his change of heart as he showers her with attention is fair and understandable. “Do I still have it?” “Yes, you have,” says her nurse. I support 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 really moving.

I still don’t understand the title. I’m told it refers to the juniper berries used in making the potent gin that Ruth tastes from start to finish, but that’s a bit long if you ask me. I prefer to think Juniper like chamber music – muffled, soft, with a certain pain that lingers.

Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.

'Juniper' review: Charlotte Rampling burns a hole in the screen

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