Make Up review – a profoundly unsettling Cornish chiller

Claire Oakley's superb debut melds ghostly visuals with a very real and stark sense of place, to hypnotic effect

British debuts don’t come much more distinctive or confident than Claire Oakley’s Make Up, a coming of age drama set in a destitute corner of Cornwall that's more reminiscent of Peter Strickland than Ken Loach. A chilly psychosexual ghost story, it pits a young woman against her own fears and desires for a deeply immersive and unsettling end result.

Oakley sets out her ghostly stall early, as 19 year old Derby native Ruth (Molly Windsor) arrives at an empty caravan park in the dead of night. The wintery hush of the off season has descended, the still of the night disturbed only by the wind and the occasional yowl of a fox. Ruth is here to be with her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn), who works for park owner Shirley (Lisa Palfrey). It’s Shirley who first greets Ruth, and her immediate over-sharing and air raid siren laugh set your teeth on edge.

At first, Ruth and Tom are very happy together, but cracks soon start to show when Ruth finds a long red hair on Tom’s clothes and a spectral lipstick stain on his mirror. She also starts seeing glimpses of a red-haired girl around the park, but no one believes she exists. Is she real, or is Ruth on the verge of a breakdown?

Windsor, who has already won major plaudits for her TV work, gives a striking performance as an insecure coiled spring of a teenager. Ruth is always chewing on her fingernails and has a litany of fears, from the sea (unhelpful in Cornwall) to her own sexuality, which she views with trepidation at best. Windsor’s edginess is vital in maintaining the mystique of the story, which skirts at the edge of the supernatural.

Bad dreams have a prophetic quality, while bright crimson wigs and fake nails seem to act as vessels for some sort of possession. Oakley crafts an unforgettable atmosphere, haunted and bleakly gorgeous with set pieces that turn everyday occurrences into sinister mysteries. An overheard tryst in the showers by the beach burrows deep into Ruth’s imagination, and the more we return to it, the more we understand why it causes her such anguish. Disorienting cinematography and a subtly nefarious score from Ben Salisbury give rise to some genuinely frightening moments when Ruth explores after dark, moving through threats both real and imagined.

This ambiguity falls away at the very end, in a reveal that is mostly satisfying but somewhat predictable, which is a bit of a let down considering how carefully crafted the rest of the script is. Oakley’s writing is attuned to the little details of conversation – how people catch themselves after saying something stupid, or all the ways calling someone ‘mate’ can be profoundly hostile. Sharp writing brings characters that could be mere archetypes to three-dimensional life, from Tom’s vile co-worker Kai (Theo Barklem-Biggs) to the vivacious Jade (Stefanie Martini), Ruth’s only real ally at the park.

Make Up entwines reality and imagination in a thrillingly original way, announcing the arrival of a fascinating new homegrown talent with a clear vision and voice, one whose future should be watched very, very keenly.

Make Up is released in select UK cinemas and streaming on Curzon Home Cinema from July 31.

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