May December  (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Todd Haynes , US, 2023, 117 mins

Cast:  Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton

Review by Carol Allen

This is a strong and delicate story, very well handled by Todd Haynes with three subtle and nuanced performances from the leading actors.

Julianne Moore and Charles Melton play long married couple Gracie and Joe.  They have three nearly adult children, enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and appear to be happy.  Their union was however a relationship which caused a sensational scandal years ago, when Joe was only thirteen, and Grace, a married woman in her thirties, seduced him.   Grace, by then pregnant with Joe’s child, was imprisoned as a sex offender.

Now, years later, their story is to be made into a  television drama starring famous actress Elizabeth Berry (Nathalie Portman), whom they have invited into their home so she can research her role as Grace and get to know and understand the character she will be playing, which she has assured them will be a sympathetic portrayal. It might seem somewhat astounding that the family would consent to co-operate with Elizabath  – though the glamour of television may have something to do with it and they are hoping that this will counterbalance the bad press they received in the past.

At first all seems to be going well.  There are times when the two women almost begin to seem like sisters in the director’s carefully framed shots.  But as Elizabeth, who is of the same generation as Joe, gets closer to him, we begin to realise that he is not the contented husband and father he at first appears.  This emerges particularly in a scene with his eldest son, when they smoke pot together – one of the many experiences of youth he never had a chance to try.  Joe is obsessed with caterpillars and butterflies, perhaps because he never had a chance to get past the chrysalis stage himself?  Amongst the three fine performances, the lesser known Melton is particularly good.

The film is full of subtle and telling detail and also not without humour.  A particularly telling scene is when Elizabeth is giving a lecture to a group of high school students and sharing her thoughts on how an actor feels about their co-star when filming a sex scene.  An interesting insight into the profession but not without relevance to the film