It’s a good time to be a Charlotte Rampling fan – but then again, it often is. In the last year alone, the 76-year-old actress has rampled far and wide: she was the best thing by far in François Ozon’s assisted dying drama Everything Went Fine, a poker-faced scream as the granite-y abbess in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, and a blood-freezing high priestess in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.
“Our plans are measured in centuries,” she memorably hissed in the third of these – and one hoped that after those three choice character turns, a substantial lead role would arrive rather more quickly than that. Eleven months later, something resembling one has – though in a film which proves too weedy to support it.
In this determinedly lowkey drama from New Zealand, Rampling plays Ruth, a retired war photographer who improbably flies from her home in England to the home of her semi-estranged son Robert (Marton Csokas) in the countryside outside Auckland, supposedly in order to recuperate from a broken leg. A live-in nurse (Edith Poor) is on the way, but until she arrives the only other soul at home is Robert’s depressive 17-year-old son Sam (George Ferrier), who is less than delighted to find it now falls to him to answer his grandmother’s frequent buzzes for attention, be on the receiving end of barked orders, and keep the old girl topped up with gin.
Suspended from school and sunk in grief over his mother’s recent death, Sam needs perking up and straightening out – and Ruth, who is no one’s idea of a life coach, turns out to be the unlikely woman for the job.
Wait, unlikely? Make that blindingly predictable. In the subsequent battle of wills, Ruth stubbornly breaks through her grandson’s outer carapace of gloom, while the boy’s emergence from that shell brings her some vicarious pleasure in turn. But their relationship develops as formulaically as if it had been mapped out in a screenwriting manual, and from the moment someone brings up a memorable trip to watch the sun rise over the nearby hills, its endpoint is never in doubt.
For a film apparently rooted in writer-director Matthew J Saville’s own experiences, Juniper often feels oddly impersonal and thinly sketched. Still, Rampling is a force of painfully constrained nature, raging from her chair against the dying of the light. Like the berries which dot the hills outside and flavour her tipple of choice, she’s peppery, sharp and evergreen.
15 cert, 94 min. In cinemas from Friday