Two stubborn mules – one young, one older – shift from confrontation to affection in the predictable but moving Juniper.
Influenced by his own grandmother and childhood experiences, Juniper is a very personal film for director and writer Matthew J. Saville. Themes of grief, mortality and suicide aren’t always fully developed, but they all feel real and lived in. Juniper steers clear of oversentimentality, and two supreme, gut-wrenching central performances from Charlotte Rampling (45 Years, Dune) and George Ferrier (Kiwi Christmas) help elevate it to the next level of emotional resonance. The two actors as grandmother and grandson bolster the frequently wistful Juniper, a transformative film which seems to find strength and peace within both life and death.
Set in the idyllic countryside of New Zealand, Juniper consistently uses the landscape to enhance the onscreen events, relationships and messages; a beautiful new day dawning at the start of the film signals the need to start living again away from grief, whilst the aged, nostalgic hue reminds us of the importance of memories. Saville frequently balances life and death, happiness and sadness, humour and drama to great effect. His film centres on Sam (Ferrier) – a suicidal 17-year-old unable to process the death of his mother – and his estranged grandmother Ruth (Rampling), who has moved in with Sam and his father whilst she recovers from a broken leg. Both strong-willed and stubborn, their ensuing battle of supremacy is intense, sometimes violent, often sulky and surprisingly amusing.
Ruth drinks a lot of gin and, as she is wheelchair-bound, needs either her nurse (Edith Poor, The Power of the Dog) or Sam to serve up this alcoholic supply to her. The deafening sound of her bell ringing for attention conjures up as much drama as the dinging dealt out by the character Hector Salamanca in Breaking Bad (and indeed, Ruth’s ferocious throwing of two empty glasses is not far off the volatility of that infamous drug lord). The early interactions in Juniper between Sam and Ruth are darkly hilarious, both characters shrinking in age to become squabbling children. What starts as an awkward relationship however quickly morphs into one of affection, respect and mutual support. Ruth, faced with her own mortality, and Sam, struggling to face his life ahead, find a striking and beautiful solace with one another.
For all the humour, Juniper still has these heavier themes buried within. Some are dealt with better than others; grief and mortality are handled impressively, whilst the elements of suicide (assisted or otherwise) feel underdeveloped and heavy-handed. For the most part, Saville’s screenplay paints a rich but delicate portrait of two people at different stages in their lives. Behind the floppy hair, furrowed brow and rugby playing physique, Sam is a young boy, bruised and hurting and unable to process his grief. Ferrier soars in the role, knowing when to show maturity, when to show naivety and fear, and also when to employ the largest bursts of emotion. Unsurprisingly, Rampling delivers another stellar performance in a glittering career, ranging from savagely rude to hilarious to caring with barely a pause in between; the shifts are seamless and indicative of one of the great actors working today. As a duo, the two find perfect chemistry, instilling their onscreen relationship with a sharp edge of realism and a dynamite humour.
Despite forming an impressive central relationship, Juniper ends up being tied up a bit too neatly. It lacks the human messiness and unpredictability of what has come before, although the emotional beats are still hit on a satisfying level. Evocative cinematography by Marty Williams creates a character out of the landscape to sit beside Sam and Ruth, which draws a detailed world around them and infuses their lives with hope. Despite its shortcomings, Juniper’s celebration of life and family mark it out as a tender experience; these are two people, one scared of getting old and dying, the other scared of growing up and living, finding a serene solace in their familial connection (and their ability to drink copious amounts of gin).
Juniper will be released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 23 September, 2022.