The Movie Waffler New to Sky Cinema - MAY DECEMBER | The Movie Waffler

New to Sky Cinema - MAY DECEMBER

New to Sky Cinema - MAY DECEMBER
A sex offender now married to her victim is shadowed by an actress set to play her in a movie.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Todd Haynes

Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, D. W. Moffett, Piper Curda, Cory Michael Smith

May December poster

Those of us accustomed to Todd Haynes' flair for melodrama were taken aback by his most recent film, Dark Waters. That film, which dealt with the poisoning of a small community by an uncaring corporation, was a very grounded drama with none of the knowing campiness we associate with the director. Given it revolves around very troubling subject matter, you might expect Haynes to have continued this approach with May December, so it's a surprise to find it's one of his campiest and snarkiest works to date. Think Persona, if Bergman had cast Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the central roles.

Haynes is reunited with his muse, Julianne Moore, who plays Gracie, a fifty-something woman who became a tabloid sensation while in her thirties for an affair with a 13-year-old boy which resulted in her giving birth to the boy's child. The real tabloid meat came when she was released from a prison sentence and went on to marry her victim, Joe (Charles Melton), who is now in his mid-thirties and has fathered a set of teenage twins with Gracie. Aside from receiving the occasional parcel of faeces in the mail, Gracie and Joe seem to live a relatively normal and content life in middle class suburban Georgia.

May December review

Things start to unravel for the couple when they allow TV star Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) to spend some time in their company as she researches a movie based on their scandal, with her in the role of Gracie. It's clear that Gracie is uncomfortable with the idea, but she seems to hope she can influence Elizabeth towards a sympathetic portrayal. The actress assures her that this is her intention, but as we watch her mimic Gracie and mine her friends and acquaintances for gossip, it becomes clear that Elizabeth's portrayal will lean towards the melodramatic, as though she were researching for the role in a Todd Haynes movie herself.

Haynes heavily apes the sort of TV movies that feature subjects like Gracie, with an over-the-top score that turns small details into grand gestures. Portman and Moore deliver disparately wicked turns, the former vampy and seductive, like a sexy Disney villain, the latter calm and manipulative, as though she were based on the image of Mia Farrow as portrayed by her estranged non-white children (a scene in which Gracie passive aggressively abuses her half-Asian daughter could have come straight from the Farrow household if you believe the rumours).

May December review

When Mia Farrow seduced the married musician Andre Previn, his singer-songwriter wife Dory wrote a song entitled 'Beware of Young Girls' in which she detailed how she was befriended and ultimately betrayed by Farrow. Gracie fails to heed Dory's warning, allowing Elizabeth the opportunity to begin a campaign of seduction of her husband. Haynes keeps it ambiguous as to whether Elizabeth is genuinely interested in Joe or is taking her method acting a little too far. Elizabeth's immersion in the character of Gracie certainly appears to have a sinister effect, with her bemoaning the casting director's choice of pubescent boys for the role of Joe as not being "sexy" enough.

I know I'm in the minority but I find Portman one of the most uninteresting actresses working in mainstream cinema. She's either a non-presence or she's hamming it up. Haynes wisely allows her to lean into the latter, and the star throws herself enthusiastically into the role of an actress who seems as unhinged as the woman she's portraying. A scene in which Elizabeth addresses a classroom with a wildly inappropriate confession of how turned on she gets while shooting sex scenes might be the highlight of Portman's career.

May December review

Moore is less well served. Her cunning yet neurotic character doesn't get enough screen time to give us any real sense of her inner workings, and she's reduced to a few ticks and crazy lady tropes. To bluntly reinforce his victimhood, Joe is portrayed as such an innocent and stunted man-child that it's difficult to accept him holding down his job as a doctor or functioning in any adult capacity. The couple's three children are barely present. Haynes seems to have no real interest in exploring this most peculiar family dynamic, which is a shame as it's potentially far more interesting than the broad psychodrama he instead focusses on.

The catty frisson between Portman and Moore is enough to keep us superficially hooked, but we're left wondering if Haynes has bluffed an opportunity to interrogate one of the great taboos. The whole setup never quite convinces largely because of its American setting. Would Gracie and Joe really be accepted by a community in a Southern American state, not known for being the most liberal part of the world? Much of the film feels like a remake of a European film that has failed to translate once its story crossed the Atlantic.

May December
 is on Sky Cinema now.

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