‘Make Up’ review: a masterful, unsettling and beautifully constructed gem

This coming-of-age psychological horror is all about inner turmoil, spliced with sudden jolts of sexual imagery

This debut feature from writer-director Claire Oakley is a smart and startling hybrid of psychological horror and queer coming-of-age story. Set in a remote Cornish holiday park after the summer season bustle has died down, it’s a beautifully constructed low-budget movie that points to a very bright future for its maker.

Make Up begins with Derby teenager Ruth (BAFTA-winning Three Girls actress Molly Windsor) arriving at the seaside caravan park where boyfriend Tom (Les Misérables’ Joseph Quinn) has been employed for the season. At first the young couple are thrilled to see one another, but the reunion buzz soon wears off as Ruth realises Tom has to work all day, leaving her to amuse herself in their glumly adequate caravan. When brunette Ruth finds a strand of red hair on Tom’s T-shirt and a makeup stain on the mirror, she clearly suspects him of cheating but doesn’t say a word.

Molly Windsor in ‘Make Up’. Credit: Press

At this point Ruth begins to catch glimpses of a red-haired woman around the windswept and near-empty park – or, does she just think she does? After reluctantly taking a job from the park’s rather bizarre owner Shirley (Lisa Palfrey), who provides some offbeat comic relief in a few memorable scenes, Ruth is partnered in the laundry room with Jade (The Last Kingdom’s Stefanie Martini). Tom warns Ruth not to get too close to her new co-worker, who’s much more chatty and confident than his reserved girlfriend, but stops short of outlining why.

A scene in which Jade applies a layer of bright red polish to Ruth’s unpainted nails feels pivotal: at first she’s excited by the extra glamour, but soon she’s scrubbing the colour off furiously – here, Oakley injects a bit of wince-inducing body-horror. It gradually becomes apparent that Ruth is less disturbed by her boyfriend’s suspected infidelity than by a seismic shift in who she thinks she is. The turmoil she’s feeling inside, but unable to express yet, manifests in a series of alarming visions including sudden jolts of sexual imagery.

Filmed entirely within a real-life Cornish holiday park, Make Up was presumably made on a shoestring but doesn’t seem hobbled by its budget. Everything from using wigs as a creepy visual motif to soundtracking Ruth’s tentatively transformative moment with Fern Kinney’s queer disco classic ‘Love Me Tonight’ feels pretty masterful. The result is both unsettling and affecting, thanks in no small part to Windsor’s seriously accomplished performance as a buttoned-up young woman struggling to process her own feelings.

Make Up will make you feel a bittersweet nostalgia for your own growing pains, whatever form they may have taken.

Details

  • Director: Claire Oakley
  • Starring: Molly Windsor, Stefanie Martini, Joseph Quinn
  • Release date: July 31
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