May December review: a family's past is laid bare in this darkly funny drama

In Todd Haynes’ wry, darkly funny drama, Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) is a Hollywood actress who travels to Savannah, Georgia to meet Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore), the woman she’ll play in her next movie.

More than two decades earlier, at the age of 36, Gracie made national news when she was arrested for having an affair with 13-year-old Joe, and then gave birth to his baby in prison. A montage of tawdry tabloid headlines reveals that the two were busted in the stockroom of a pet store.

When she was released, the couple married, and had two more children. It’s as a seemingly ordinary family unit that Elizabeth meets them, determined to capture the complexity of their story. “It’s an independent film,” Elizabeth reassures them. Meanwhile, Gracie is keen that Elizabeth “get the story right.”

The film is bathed in a sickly milky light, designed to queasily soften the scandal at its centre. But its heightened,atonal piano score, crashing 1970s-style camera zooms and symbolic close-ups of butterflies are deliberate, over-the-top reminders that we too are watching a drama, dialled up in order to entertain.

Director Haynes (Carol, Far from Heaven) and screenwriter Samy Burch have plenty of fun showing the ways each woman has learned to play to the camera. Each time Elizabeth tries to quiz her subject about the moral dilemmas of her past, Gracie rebuffs her, remaining unreadable behind a pinched, painted smile.

The film asks if it matters. Portman proves a gifted mimic, nailing the precise set of Moore’s jaw and her character’suncanny little girl lisp. Haynes stages several scenes of the women in front of mirrors, to emphasise how each woman sees what she wants to reflect.

More naked with his emotions is Joe (Charles Melton). Now 36, he’s a fragile and anguished boy in a grown man’s handsome, hulking body. “You definitely don’t have to,” says his teenage son, offering him a spliff. When he tentatively accepts, we’re subtly invited to imagine another scenario in which Joe may have acquiesced.

Like Elizabeth, the audience is encouraged to interpret and analyse the behaviour in front of them. But the film asks if our desire to “know” a character is so we can understand them, or because we want to redeem them.

In cinemas from Friday

117 mins, cert 15