Blurred Lines – A Review of the Film May December

May December is the new comedy-drama (leaning heavily into the drama) from acclaimed director Todd Haynes of Carol and Far From Heaven fame. Haynes has a penchant for stories about complex, often taboo relationships and this film, written by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, certainly fits that narrative.

Powerhouse actresses Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman are beautifully supported by a surprisingly nuanced performance from Charles Melton, who is better known as the hunky Reggie Mantle from the teen TV series Riverdale. The film is inspired by the true story of American teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who had a sexual relationship with (and eventually married) one of her 13-year-old students. It centres on the arrival of Elizabeth (Portman), a well-known actress who is researching for her role in a film being made about the scandal and the unconventional relationship between Gracie (Moore) and her much younger husband, Joe (Melton).

May December

In truth, while I genuinely enjoyed this movie, it’s difficult to know how to feel about it, and that is absolutely intentional on the filmmakers’ part. The controversial subject matter is cleverly handled with everything from the diffuse, shadowed lighting and overly dramatic music to the awkward character interactions, designed to make you feel uncomfortable from the very outset. Even the darkly comedic elements add to a general sense of awkwardness and an increasing sense of unease even before the story unfolds to show its moral grey areas.

This growing discomfort is beautifully carried throughout the film with powerful yet understated performances from the three leads, whose personalities and hidden motives gently bump up against each other like boats in a harbour, scratching away at their facades. Portman brings out the big acting guns in her portrayal of the outwardly gracious but increasingly unstable actress, Elizabeth, whose arrival unravels Gracie and Joe’s relationship.

Gracie, a complex character with both dangerous steel and embarrassing, child-like vulnerability, is played to great effect by Moore, who easily and startlingly shifts between the roles of a loving (yet controlling and sometimes critical) wife and mother, into an increasingly fragile infantile state which is deeply unsettling.

With its whitewashing of a very scandalous and divisive relationship, the inappropriateness of the coupling is never really confronted directly. Everybody in Gracie and Joe’s world skirts around the very natural questions of morality and responsibility within their relationship and the shocking nature of how it began. Elizabeth’s polite intrusion into the couple’s lives slowly unravels the accepted story that theirs is somehow a relationship of such deep and abiding love and passion that it has to live outside societal norms.

As the mother of a 13-year-old son, I found the subject matter uncomfortably provocative, especially around the blurred lines between real and palatable fiction. Ultimately, this movie explores societal expectations and the roles we are expected to play, both those forced upon us and those we take on. It gently investigates the taboo nature of some love stories and the lies we tell ourselves in order to normalise the things we cannot face, leaving us to ponder the age-old question of whether love truly does conquer all.

This movie is due for release in early February 2024, so please check your local Palace Cinema for upcoming film and session times.

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Dark Stories Theatre Reviews to see what else is on in your town.