UK (2019) Dir. Claire Oakley
Being the outsider is always difficult, more so when you arrive in a place where the local community is tight knit. You may have the support of someone close already part of that number, but there is still everyone else to win over – just don’t end up alienating the one person you need the most…
Ruth (Molly Windsor) arrives at a caravan park in St Ives, Cornwall in the winter season to be with her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn) who works at the resort. He doesn’t arrive until much later and while happy to see each other, Ruth is agitated by strands of red hair on Tom’s jacket. Taking a job helping out around the resort, Ruth catches glimpses of a woman with red hair and red fingernails but can never catch up with her.
Tom continues to be shady and often dishonest about his whereabouts during the day, stirring Ruth’s suspicions further. Befriending resort worker Jade (Stefanie Martini), who makes wigs and is a make-up specialist, the two bond after Ruth is given a makeover but Tom warns Ruth off Jade. As Ruth continues to suspect an affair between Tom and Jade, things begin to get a little weird for her around the resort.
Make Up is the feature debut from Claire Oakley, a quiet, eerie psychological drama that echoes the like of Peter Strickland and Jonathon Glazer, in both its visual style and its propensity for the oblique. It’s a cold, slow burn tale where it isn’t just the characters who are keeping their cards close to their chest, Oakley relies heavily on the assumption the audience can piece the story together through the symbolism she presents.
Starting off as a standard domestic drama, the grey, foreboding setting of the wintry coastal resort is the first sign this isn’t going to be your typical fare, same for the lack of opening titles. Either Oakley is impatient about such things or has decided that at just 79-minutes, the time would be better spent getting on with the story. As this is her first major work, we’ll have to see if this is a recurring motif for her.
In Tom’s absence, teenager Ruth is welcomed by resort manager Shirley (Lisa Palfrey), who is neither friendly nor hostile but sees through Ruth’s lie about her parents knowing she is there. Less amiable is Kai (Theo Barklem-Biggs), a burly resort worker short on conversation and patience with his dog. Even at this early stage, barely two minutes into the film, there is a palpable sense of dread in the air despite nothing happening yet.
Any resort is going to feel oddly unwelcoming when closed down, and the chilly seasonal temperatures and cloudy skies only serve to heighten this experience – for once, the gloomy British weather has an aesthetic benefit Hollywood would kill for! A bonus blot on the landscape is the fumigation of the vans and chalets, each one wrapped in plastic and tarpaulin as they sit silently quarantined in the main park like freshly laid gravestones.
For Ruth, these become symbols of torment in searching for Tom’s elusive lover as she spies tresses of red hair in the wind disappearing behind a van only for the space to be empty. In her own van with Tom, a lipstick print on the mirror is a source of bother for Ruth not in the least how it keeps returning whenever she cleans it off; when it suddenly appears on the window of one of the cordoned off vans, Ruth starts to wonder if she is seeing things.
Yet it is not just physical apparitions that haunt Ruth – ever since her makeover from Jade of bright red false nails, a number of odd visions plagues her mind. Fragments of images of red nails digging into bare flesh are the most common but what do they mean? Why does Ruth her strange moaning when she uses the communal showers? And what was the reputation Jade have that Tom warns her about?
Questions like this subtly shift the film from moody soap opera to psychological thriller with vague horror overtones that aren’t fully applied but help maintain the uneasy chill and slow building tension that permeates through every frame. With little shared about the resort, the general surroundings or the people in it, is Ruth a specific target or just the latest notch on the belt of an esoteric and possibly dangerous community?
Oakley isn’t keen on delivering answers, which is frustrating for those unable to tap into her wavelength, leaving us with a denouement of some density that proves unhelpful if you weren’t able to put all the pieces together beforehand. As alluded earlier, symbolism is huge part of the narrative, and Oakley has, like many before her, chosen the sea to manifest many of the facets of Ruth’s mental fragility – such as her being pulled under by tentacles of red hair – to being a conduit for the rebirth of her identity, if I have read the scene correctly.
Up until the final scene, I was invested in the story, largely because of Molly Windsor’s engrossing nuanced turn as Ruth, but also because Oakley created threads of genuine interest as to where it was all leading to. I can’t say I feel satisfied with how it ended but that might be because I didn’t quite get it and because nothing felt resolved when it arrived. As for the relevance of the title, I assuming the idea relates to women becoming someone else when they are painted up – I really haven’t a clue.
Claire Oakley certain makes an impression with Make Up despite the underwhelming and opaque conclusion, but since Britain – and cinema in general – needs more bold female filmmakers, the promise shown with this debut is undeniable. Decidedly non-mainstream it may be, arthouse film fans at least have a new voice in the genre to support in the future.