A strong debut feature worth wearing a mask for.
Returning to the cinema for the first time since March, one is unavoidably drawn to the question: is this the right film to return to cinemas to see? Happily, Claire Oakley’s debut film Make Up overcame this extra test. Bafta winner Molly Windsor leads what initially appears to be a grounded relationship tale; 18-year-old Ruth travels to stay with her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn), working in an isolated caravan park by the Cornwall coast. Seemingly, it is the first time her parents have allowed her away from home, but things do not go to plan – she spies the faded marks of a kiss on the mirror in Tom’s bedroom and strands of red hair on Tom’s clothing. As the film tonally shifts from the everyday dialogue of suspected infidelity, any qualms I had about wearing a mask in the auditorium were swept away.
Beyond the vivid flashes of Oakley’s experimentation, Make Up feels more assured than a debut feature might. It slots honourably alongside the films it, wittingly or unwittingly, invokes – the psychological pursuit, surrounded by water, of a red-clad figure, feels like a timely update of Don’t Look Now, which was re-released last year. Editor Sacha Schwartz masterfully flashes to Ruth’s pursuit of the red-haired figure, occasionally directly contradicting what we have seen previously. Even in the later sections, as interpolation between places and times is at its most rapid, Schwartz always maintains the forward motion, giving the film a lilting, cohesive quality. Oakley’s visual flair means that no image feels out of place, juxtaposing blue for Ruth and red for the woman Ruth is pursuing; and Oakley seems fascinated by reflections in mirrors and windows. She can frame a shot beautifully and effectively – the viewer is already watching from the park as the headlights of Ruth’s car first arrive, in the top right of the frame, the night filling the screen with negative space. Another experiment that works beautifully is the use of a cut not to a different scene but to a changed mood – when Ruth is giving Tom oral sex, the camera pans smoothly down, past a table, maintaining a voyeuristic distance that manages to avoid feeling jarringly exploitative but still signifying much. Suddenly, we are on the other side of the room. Tom apologises.
Perhaps Oakley's literature degree is what informs her literalising of metaphorical moments — a technique which provides some of the humour that peppers what could otherwise become a laboriously serious film. Ruth's relationship with fellow park employee Jade begins with a literal spark: "You gave me an electric shock." "It was the polythene", Ruth responds. Pathetic fallacy via rain, a true classic of the form, comes at Ruth's darkest moment. The synergy of the emotional arc of the film with these physical manifestations, along with the contradictory flashbacks into Ruth’s memory, perhaps suggest that what we are watching is not literally happening, but her subjective experience. This experience is such an immersive one, however, that I would defy anyone to find themselves distracted into considering the subjectivity of cinema as they are watching Make Up.
Whilst the role of Ruth is perhaps not the opportunity for a tour-de-force performance, Windsor essentially carries the whole film and does so always believably as if she were not a professional actress but a street casting. She underplays the moments of revelation for her character beautifully, depicting Ruth with naturalism — sometimes she will betray only the slightest change of emotion. One gets the sense that Windsor truly cares for and believes in the character she is depicting. It is a very promising performance, and while I wouldn't yet call her a great actress, I am absolutely moved to follow her future career.
The laudable brevity of the film means that the peripheral characters are no more than sketches. Characters such as Tom and Jade are realistic enough, certainly, and Oakley succeeds in depicting Ruth’s formative romantic liaisons as unsentimentally but affectionately as possible. The goofiness that Tom feels comfortable displaying early on cements their intimacy without it being overegged. Their boss tells Ruth: “After I learnt to swim, I was no longer afraid of dogs.” A whole back-story is invoked but not shown. Tom’s enemy Kai is the closest the film gets to an antagonist. Kai tells Ruth that Tom’s dog “can pick up scents that are two weeks old… right now it can smell your cunt”.Halfway through Make Up, I realised that we were never going to discover the identity of the red-haired apparition – the story was never really about her. The cohesiveness in the production means that it is not a jarring shift, but one for which I was fully on-board. The journey is Oakley’s foray into her chosen medium, testing the waters with this personal story that I certainly plan to watch again.