London Film Festival 2023: ‘May December’ Review
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Samy Burch
Starring: Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton, Gabriel Chung, Elizabeth Yu
Where To Watch: In select cinemas now / A Sky Cinema release.
Our Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✨
Todd Haynes brings to life Samy Burch’s acerbic tale of an actress preparing for — what she hopes to be — the role of a lifetime in a scandalous biopic about an illicit romance that gripped the tabloids decades earlier. Natalie Portman plays the enigmatic and venomous Elizabeth who arrives in Savannah Georgia to begin her research into the true life of the infamous local celebrity, wife, and mother Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore). However, as the politely tactful melodrama unfurls, we soon come to understand exactly why this romance was a media marvel as we learn Gracie began her affair with second-husband George (the scintillating Charles Melton) when he was just thirteen years old, becoming pregnant with his child, and serving time in prison. Now, around twenty years later, Gracie and Charles live the white picket fence life, happy and content. Or so they want Elizabeth to think. Yet it’s clear that discontentment has been simmering between the husband and wife for some time and as the past is reignited by Elizabeth’s presence, soon everything begins to boil over.
May December marks a pleasant return by Haynes to an excavation of the relationship between two women, his most prolific work of the last decade being the queer cult phenomena Carol in which Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star in this The Price of Salt adaptation. With less majesty than Carol, May December makes up for it in unease. The relationship between Elizabeth and Gracie has all the faux friendliness of a typical suburban drama, judgement swings between them like a Newton’s Cradle, an infernal tap-tap-tap that keeps metronomic pace the ramping tension without overture. The artistry of the film is in the restraint of it — like the effervescent Charles Melton’s George has been attempting to master the past two decades. Though the story is tinged with melodrama, the plot does not go for the dramatic, instead opting for the quiet, reserved discussion. When there are outbursts, they come from the teenagers, and George himself, and they’re taken as a signifier of immaturity, something to be grown out of, as though speaking truth isn’t for grown-ups.
This film is unsettling but addictive, anchored with a stand out performance from Melton who wrestles with the notion of victimhood and consent with brutal nuance, which allows this young actor to stand beside the established powerhouses of Portman and Moore with confidence. He is the heart of this story, and with the guidance of Haynes, May December tells this insidious tale of grooming and exploitation with genuine care but with a restrained melodramatic flair.