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Juniper benefits from Charlotte Rampling’s layered performance as a grandmother grappling with mortality

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.

Saville and Rampling worked on revising the script for three days after their first meeting in Paris. Two weeks later, Rampling officially accepted the role.(Supplied: Transmission)

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 de ella 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.

Close up of young man with shaggy blond hair and a bleeding brow after playing football
“Juniper is a very personal story based on my experiences as a teenager,” Saville writes in his director’s statement.(Supplied: Transmission)

Ruth has an unconventional past, as a war correspondent who once traveled the globe witnessing some of the best and worst of humanity. Ella’s 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 de ella, who is left to help look after her while his father de ella (an excellent but mostly off-screen Marton Csokas) is called away to England, becomes the chief target of her rancour de ella.

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 obediently to the redemptive notes of its final act.

Two young men look on excitedly as they sit beside an old woman in a wheelchair who aims a gun into the air
The role of Ruth was inspired by Saville’s grandmother, Moccy, who he described in The Spinoff as an “intelligent, funny, and at times brutal” woman.(Supplied: Transmission)

But Rampling makes it worth watching, even if you sense where it’s all heading. Ella’s 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.

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