Tuesday 28 July 2020

Make Up (UK 2020: Dir Claire Oakley)

Oakley's brilliantly observed debut feature takes us to the out of season caravan parks of the Cornish coast, where mobile homes sit squarely looking out to sea, most empty of holidaymakers with only year round residents making up the scant population.

Into this bleak environment arrives Ruth (a stunning performance from Molly Windsor), who's here to be with her long distance boyfriend Tom, one of the park's employees (Joseph Quinn in a powerful, understated performance). He's managed by Shirley (Lisa Palfrey), a tough seen-it-all character who doesn't believe that 18 year old Ruth received permission from her parents to make the trip. Her lack of challenge confirms her guilt.

Ruth and Tom are briefly happily reunited, but Ruth wasn't banking on seeing so little of him because of work, and spends a lot of time alone in their caravan. Things become difficult early on when she finds traces of long red hair in Tom's bed; her response is to wash all the bedding, at which point she meets Jade (Stefanie Martini), another of the camp's workers, with whom Ruth feels an almost immediate connection. Things deteriorate between Tom and Ruth, particularly when she is given employment by Shirley and is able to exert some independence, but Ruth remains obsessive about the girl with red hair who she is convinced is having a relationship with her boyfriend. Her search for this shadowy woman brings her in closer contact with real life Jade, but the pressure on Ruth to acknowledge her own sexual identity is not helped by the strangeness of caravan park living and the alienation she feels from most of the people there.

What transforms Make Up from a potentially by the numbers coming of age story is the way in which Ruth's anxieties manifest themselves. She is still very much a young girl; her copying of Tom when they're in bed together prompts him to respond "how old are you?" and in one scene her lack of life skills are laid bare as she struggles to open a tin of tomato sauce, resulting in the pair dining on a plate of naked spaghetti. Ruth's relationship with Tom is beautifully nuanced, all askance looks and awkward silences; an early scene in which she has to arouse herself alone in the bathroom before having sex with him speaks volumes, and it's clear that Tom never expected her to make good on an (unseen) promise to come and stay with him.

But more painfully we witness Ruth's world gradually falling apart in the bleak Cornish landscape: Jade's offer to paint her nails - ostensibly to stop Ruth biting them - becomes an intimate moment which emotionally outstrips anything she's previously experienced. And her shame at that moment results in her trying to wipe the varnish off in a scene that borders on body horror, while her mind is flooded with brief images of an intimacy she thought she could never hope for. Ruth's glimpses of the girl with red hair, initially thought to be her rival for Tom, remain opaque (a brief sighting of a figure within an empty caravan covered in polythene for fumigating is startling) and gradually function as further manifestations of her own guilt.

If Ruth's eventual awakening, during a beach rave, illuminated by fireworks and Nick Cook's dancing cinematography (such a contrast to the static tableaux of most of the movie), is fairly straightforwardly redemptive, it's not like she hasn't earned it, but it's far from a happy denouement. At the film's start, Ruth is seen wearing one of Tom's sweatshirts, and at the end she's wrapped in Jade's oversized coat; she's swapped one protection for another, but inside Ruth has changed irrevocably. Make Up is a small, perfectly formed film, worth seeing for the myriad tiny details but also Windsor's stellar performance, a calling card if ever I saw one.

Make Up will be available exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from 31st July.

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