Make Up is the first full-length film from writer–director Claire Oakley, set in an out-of-season holiday park on the Cornish coast where the wind blows, waves crash, rain lashes and gulls screech so you know it’s not a rom-com (foxes shriek in the night too). But while it’s easy to say what it isn’t, it’s harder to say what it is. It’s a thriller but not quite a thriller, and a horror flick but not quite a horror flick, and a psychosexual fantasy but not wholly a psychosexual fantasy… It may be we can settle only on one thing, and the one thing is this: it is very, very good.
Make Up stars the always excellent Molly Windsor as 18-year-old Ruth, who has travelled from Derby to the holiday park to stay with her boyfriend, Tom (Joseph Quinn), as it’s where he works in the winter. What is there to do in a holiday park over the winter? A lot, I discovered. For instance, every caravan has to be fumigated and wrapped in clingfilm, essentially. And standing in their rows, they do create an atmosphere of eerie suffocation. This, together with the soundscape — long grasses rustle, machinery bangs, polystyrene crackles, there are rumbles from God knows where — will fill you with a constant dread, as if something truly appalling is about to happen at any moment.
It’s unsettlingly creepy. If Cornwall still doesn’t want tourists to visit (as they might bring Covid), I would say that Make Up shown as a double-bill with Bait (Mark Jenkin’s 2019 film about tensions between fishermen and second-homers in a Cornish village and highly recommended) would probably ensure that no one gets further than Devon. But that’s by the by.
The plot, meanwhile, is simple. Having discovered a long red hair amidst Tom’s clothes and a lipstick kiss on the mirror in his caravan, Ruth is convinced he is cheating on her. Actually, not convinced. More obsessed. And at the same time she is increasingly drawn to Jade (Stefanie Martini), who also works on site, and, as Tom says, ‘has a reputation’. ‘For what?’, asks Ruth, but that question is left hanging in the air.
And that’s about it, plot-wise, but this isn’t to say the film is without complexity. It’s just that it’s happening elsewhere, on an emotional level. Ruth doesn’t give much away but Windsor is such a brilliant, naturalistic actress we immediately understand that underneath there is disquiet and a searching restlessness and that what she thinks she wants isn’t necessarily what she desires. But what does she desire? And are we seeing what’s actually happening, or is much of it in her mind?
I can only say that we certainly want to find all this out. And that’s all I’m saying. With most films you know where the story is going within the first ten minutes. Oh, it’s thisfilm. But here you don’t. And that’s what makes it so unusually compelling and I wouldn’t wish to give the game away.
I was minded to finish by pointing out that for a first feature this is extraordinarily accomplished. Oakley’s intimate camera-work and spare script keep you on your toes throughout and there’s a scene involving a fake fingernail you won’t forget in a hurry. But actually it’s extraordinarily accomplished whatever.
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