Justine (Tallulah Haddon) meets Rachel (Sophie Reid) in a bookshop and the two start chatting. After another chance enounter they begin dating and quickly develop a pretty serious relationship. The problem is that Rachel, about to move to Barcelona to be an English teacher, has her life much more together than Justine, who is on probation and still in the grip of alcoholism.
There are a lot of issues going on in Justine, but rather than alcoholism, or putting one’s life back together on probation, or the struggles of a relationship across economic lines, director Jamie Patterson and writer Jeff Murphy are interested in the human story between their two main characters. We don’t get a huge amount of background on Rachel, and what we learn about Justine is largely teased out in her reticence about her past, at least until one late scene lays some family tensions a bit more bare, and yet the characters still feel well drawn.
The film rests on the chemistry between Haddon and Reid, and both as actors and in terms of making us believe in them as a couple it’s a great success. There is an immediate, playful, charge as they chat after meeting at the bookshop (“You’re quite hot, aren’t you?” says Justine to Rachel) and the way that grows from something Justine might have just left as a one time flirtation into a fast developing relationship is convincing. Intimate moments are shot with intensity and with restraint, but it’s notable that there is a palpable connection in almost every moment that Justine and Rachel are together. Particularly moving are two shots that focus on their hands; on their first date we see Rachel’s nervous move to hold Justine’s hand, while in the film’s closing moments we see her individually kiss each of Justine’s fingers. It’s an echo that speaks volumes about the way their connection has deepened during the film.
Individually, the performances are excellent. Haddon’s depiction of Justine’s alcoholism and how it goes from her seeming just to have a simmering buzz going all the time to something truly dominating — one upsetting moment shows her sitting on a bench, sucking down vodka from a water bottle almost like a baby gulping down milk — is one of the film’s most quietly real feeling elements. Rachel’s character is seen exclusively in how she relates to Justine, for instance, whether for budgetary or narrative reasons, we don’t go with her on her work trip to Barcelona, but this doesn’t mean that Sophie Reid is any less impressive in her performance. A couple of scenes in which, before the extent of Justine’s problems are entirely clear, she seems to get an inkling that she’s not a hundred percent sure what she’s getting into are particularly strong, but like Haddon’s it’s a performance of deceptively simple realism.
A few of the supporting performances don’t work quite as well, but some that could come from the screenplay; Sian Reese-Williams is effective as Justine’s probation officer, but single scenes with a doctor (Steve Oram) that Justine seems to have a history with and with her mother (Kirsty Dillon) are a little awkward, perhaps because they are isolated within the narrative (and, in the case of the scene with Steve Oram, because it’s shot weirdly close up, as if to exclude a set the production didn’t have).
Unfortunately, Justine stumbles at the last hurdle. Though it’s just 79 minutes long, it almost feels as though the cameras ran out of memory, forcing an ending that feels abrupt to the point of being unfinished and a construction of the final scene that didn’t really work for me. It’s a pity, because there is a lot to recommend here, and Haddon and Reid are names well worth looking out for, but the film just doesn’t quite stick the landing.