As far as film roles for older women go, Charlotte Rampling could do a lot worse than steely alcoholic Ruth, an ailing former war reporter who moves in with her estranged family in “Juniper.” The debut feature from Kiwi actor Matthew J. Saville, “Juniper” delivers its routine narrative beats with an effective restraint, though it rarely raises the pulse or quickens the heart. The movie holds back at every potential dramatic turn, gripping the emotional reins tight where it could have loosened them. But Rampling brings a quiet gravitas to the surly character, and there is something elegantly moving about watching her watch the world go by.
The film opens with teenager Sam (George Ferrier) being scooped from boarding school by his aloof father Robert (Marton Csokas), who abruptly informs him that his English grandmother, whom he’s never met, will be staying with them after breaking her leg. Overly concerned with which room she’s staying in, Sam surmises that she’ll be in the room where his mother died. Noticing two cases of gin clanking in the backseat, he is a bit shocked to learn his aging grandmother puts down a bottle a day. There is a spare naturalism to Saville’s script, which breadcrumbs expository information on a need-to-know basis, but it doesn’t offer much to latch onto.
When Sam arrives home, Ruth is already comfortably situated in the house, along with her young nurse Sarah (Edith Poor). He’s uninterested in the strange new presence at first, content to let Sarah handle all the heavy lifting. But when his father absconds to England to get Ruth’s affairs in order, Sam naturally gets pulled into helping once in awhile. Ruth isn’t happy about needing help to go to the bathroom, either, telling him, “I assure you, this is more embarrassing for me than it is for you.” She’s exacting with her drink order; a pitcher of slightly watered-down gin with a few lemon slices (“gin to here, water to here, and a squeeze of lemon,” she directs, eyeballing the pitcher). The mild concern Sam displays when he tries to water it down even more doesn’t go unnoticed, and Ruth isn’t afraid to throw a glass at his head to show her displeasure.
Ruth is clearly more interested in him than he is in her, though she uses a rather effective nonchalant approach to the moody teenager. “We’re not gonna have a decent conversation if you don’t get drunk,” she tells him, and Sam finally opens up about his mother after he’s downed a few gins. When he’s inevitably sick the next morning, Sarah warns him against trying to keep up with Ruth. Sarah seems an obvious point of intrigue for Sam, though their friendship hardly even rises to mild flirtation. (Perhaps the more politically correct choice, but not the most interesting.)
As Sam and Ruth’s bond builds, the familiar plot points roll out. “She says you dress like shit,” Sarah informs Sam, before delivering a fresh pile of button-ups, which Ruth calls “flannels.” Unimpressed with her sedentary garden view, Ruth offers Sam’s friends a few kegs in exchange for cleaning up the overgrown grounds. Watching the shirtless young men out her window, Ruth admits, “I’m enjoying the view.” She never shares real war stories, but she does impress the boys with her shotgun skills. These fanciful asides paint a fuller picture of Ruth as a certain kind of older woman — a little naughty, and has lived a life — but never amount to more than a thin sketch.
There are quiet moments that reach an emotional pitch, such as when Sam picks Ruth up and slow-dances with her by the fire. Rampling squeezes all that she can from this sweet but enfeebling moment. As Sam slowly spins her round, Ruth is resistant at first, humbled by her weakened body, but ultimately relaxes into the comfort of her grandson’s loving embrace. It’s the closest the film gets to any kind of denouement, and it only works because of Rampling’s immense skill.
In its effort to avoid cliche, “Juniper” resists taking any big swings that might have made a more lasting impression. Saville’s minimalist script shrewdly keeps the action limited to the house, and he is smart to focus on the four main characters. But with so few players, that they still manage to remain opaque seems like a lack of imagination, vulnerability, or both.
“Juniper” opens in select theaters on February 24.