Make Up, 2019.
Directed by Claire Oakley.
Starring Molly Windsor, Joseph Quinn, Stefanie Martini, Theo Barklem-Biggs and Lisa Palfrey.
A young woman travels down to Cornwall to live with her boyfriend at the holiday park where he works, but begins to suspect he has been cheating on her.
There’s something inherently strange about a British seaside holiday park out of season. The salty air is a little too quiet and, without the constant hum of activity, the caravans, amusements and even the beaches look gloomy and lifeless. It’s into this utterly unique world that teenage protagonist Ruth (Molly Windsor) arrives at the beginning of writer-director Claire Oakley’s beguiling feature debut Make Up. She arrives as a pair of headlights, glimpsed in the distance, cutting through the darkness – and it takes her a long time to emerge from that gloom.
Ruth is immediately an outsider, struggling to fit in with the established micro-community of the caravan site. She has travelled there from Derby to join her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn), but he is distracted by the work of deep-cleaning the park to prepare for the next season. When Ruth discovers a lipstick mark on Tom’s mirror and a long, red hair in his clothes, she becomes convinced that he has been cheating on her – and her new buddy Jade (Stefanie Martini), with her stock of colourful wigs, is the prime suspect.
Make Up is a compelling mystery tale about fascination and obsession, told through the prism of a woman who’s the epitome of an unreliable narrator. As she does odd jobs around the park and interacts with the very strange residents – including Inbetweeners Movie star Theo Barklem-Biggs in a very unsettling turn – it’s never quite clear whether this world is really as bizarre and oppressive as it seems, or whether Ruth is conjuring its darkness in her head. Molly Windsor, last seen in the slightly disappointing ITV drama Cheat, shines in another role that enables her to play her cards close to her chest in beguiling fashion.
The joy of Oakley’s movie is that it’s thoroughly unpredictable when it comes to genre. What starts off as a fairly simple relationship drama frequently metamorphoses into entirely new shapes, from mystery thriller to magical realism to straight-up horror within the plastic-wrapped walls of a caravan being fumigated. Oakley’s enthralling tale is as unpredictable as it is engaging and, though some may baulk at the ambiguous finale, it’s a beautiful flourish of romance that turns the film, one more time, into something completely different to what has come before.
Windsor is absolutely the star here, like a deer caught in the headlights of a world in which everyone else seems to know exactly who they are. When she tells the ultra-confident Jade that she “looks like a stupid kid playing dress-up” when she wears make-up, it’s an admission that self-expression does not come easily to her. Her and Tom have been together since they were both 15 and it’s abundantly clear that she, specifically, has never had the chance to explore who she is outside of her bond with him.
Quinn does impressive work in a deliberately under-written role, conveying the loving facade of a man who’s in a relationship because of convenience, rather than any sort of passion. Martini, meanwhile, elegantly manages the script’s demands for her character to shift from confidante to temptress as Ruth’s opinion of her changes. This is Windsor’s film, but Oakley ensures that the supporting cast adds colour and intrigue to a story thick with unanswered questions.
Make Up is an impressive calling card for Oakley, showcasing her ability to tell an intense, gripping story within a variety of genres simultaneously. The images are arresting, whether it’s a sexual tryst within a grimy bathroom or Ruth pulled beneath the surf by red hair twirling like tentacles, and Oakley weaves them together to form something that’s less like a narrative feature than it is a headfirst journey into the unravelling psyche of a young woman adrift in the world. It’s dark, knotty and you can almost taste the metallic unpleasantness of the salt in the swirling sea air.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.