The out-of-season holiday resort, like the abandoned city or ruined temple, has something fascinating and even erotic in its emptiness. Writer-director Claire Oakley taps into this mood for her debut feature, a psychological drama-thriller set in a wintry caravan park in St Ives, Cornwall. She has taken the template of arthouse Brit realism and audaciously spiked it with some genre thrills, as if Ken Loach collaborated with Brian De Palma or Nicolas Roeg. With cinematographer Nick Cooke, Oakley finds the bracingly different aspects of the Cornish landscape: ominous in the darkness, wild in the sunshine and menacing in the cold, as distant sea spray mixes with the cloud cover.
Molly Windsor (whom I last saw 10 years ago as a child actor in Samantha Morton’s The Unloved) plays Ruth, a teenager who shows up after dark at what looks like an utterly deserted caravan site: it is winter, of course, so it could be just after supper or four in the morning. There is something unwelcoming about it, but Ruth is at least expected: she is the girlfriend of Tom (Joseph Quinn) who works at the resort, and she’s hoping to get cleaning work there herself.
Manager Shirley (Lisa Palfrey) takes her on, and allows Ruth and Tom to stay in one of the static caravans, with much lascivious giggling about how the last couple to occupy it ended up having a baby. Ruth is reasonably content, although Kai (Theo Barklem-Biggs), the other lad working there minding the guard dog, is a nasty piece of work. The one friendly face is Jade (Stefanie Martini), whose hobby is makeup and hairstyling and who offers to give Ruth a makeover.
Ruth is disturbed to see strands of bright red hair in the bed she shares with Tom, and the faint remains of a cupid’s-bow kiss on the mirror. Is Tom having an affair? But then why can she see this same kiss-shape mysteriously appearing at night on the windows of caravans that are supposed to be empty – caravans that have been hygienically sealed in polyurethane wrapping for the winter – like a ghostly ectoplasm? Is this place haunted? Or is Ruth herself experiencing a spectral, psychosexual premonition of something in her own future?
The idea of a ghost in the holiday resort is appropriate and yet a tautology. The whole place at this time of year is a ghost, an uncanny wraith of its summer self. Oakley shows how without the intoxicant of sunshine and holidays, you can see the everyday textures and surfaces more clearly, yet they are just as sensual. One of her best sequences is a bad dream that Ruth has, which is simply a static shot of some marram grass on the beach, which over five or 10 seconds turns from green to reddish brown, as if being poisoned. And yet Oakley doesn’t let us forget about the sheer beauty of the place, with golden-hour sunsets across the bay.
Ruth cannot swim and is afraid of the sea (Oakley lets us absorb the symbolic possibilities of this phobia), but she listens impassively to Shirley’s gnomic advice that the water is a great healer and cured her of her own fear of dogs – a promise that is a little disconcerting, given the ugly hostility of Kai and his alsatian. It’s all leading to the moment when Ruth goes for a shower in the shared facilities and hears noises coming from an adjacent stall. Oakley shuffles the timeline so that later in the film we appear to flash back to this moment whose import was apparently suppressed at the time, or maybe we are witnessing the way Ruth has re-imagined. Either way, the narrative disorientation is stylish. It’s a clever and expertly made movie; Oakley luxuriates in its winter chill.
• Make Up is available on Curzon Home Cinema from 31 July.
Source: The Guardian