Get us in your inbox

May December

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Photograph: Francois Duhamel

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman joust in a deliciously dark-edged melodrama from Todd Haynes

A camp and curious pleasure from American filmmaker Todd Haynes (Carol, Far From Heaven), May December brings together Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in the story of an actress, Elizabeth (Portman), who travels to Savannah, Georgia to spend time with a woman, Gracie (Moore), she’s going to be playing in a film. May December plays with the idea that everyone wants to be understood – to have their story told – but the examination and the telling might not have the results they desire.

Gracie’s well-heeled, suburban, cake-baking life is being lived in the shadow of scandal. Two decades earlier, she was imprisoned for having sex with a 13-year-old, Joe, who she met working at a local pet shop. It was perfect tabloid and trash TV fodder. Now, two decades later, she and Joe (Charles Melton) are married, and it’s their apparently settled life to which Elizabeth becomes a witness, attending family events in her big movie-star sunglasses and travelling around town to talk with friends and family, including Gracie’s ex-husband and her kids from both marriages.

It’s a fitting subject for Haynes who’s been interested in the dangers and dilemmas of bringing real lives to screen ever since he used Barbie dolls to make Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story in the 1980s. Remember, too, he’s the director who cast six actors – including Cate Blanchett – to play Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. He has form with breaking down what it means to tell a story in a way that’s vibrant rather than dry.

It’s playful, original and intriguing, if not as full and rounded as Haynes’s very best work

There are similar giant invisible quote-marks hovering above May December, but this is less rule-breaking. It still has a tongue-in-cheek vibe, not least when big melodramatic piano notes crash into banal moments like a daytime soap. It’s all presented in a slightly soft-focus dreamy style that walks a teasing tightrope between taking its subject seriously and throwing a big wink at the audience. 

But don’t mistake the playfulness for any sort of disregard for the story. Moore plays Gracie as steely but damaged, and the relationship between Gracie and Joe is fascinating, full of echoes of the gulf in age that existed when they first met. The dance between the two women – both friendly and threatening – is compelling. May December doesn’t feel as full and rounded as Haynes’s very best work, but it’s still playful, original and intriguing.

May December premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Dave Calhoun
Written by
Dave Calhoun
You may also like
You may also like