Justine is unusual for a film that is about an alcoholic. It does not seek to explain why the protagonist feels the need to drink until she collapses in the street and is dragged into the emergency room. It’s more about the ebb and flow of her day-to-day life and her rocky transition into adulthood. We first meet her at a point when she could turn back the tide and recover from her addiction but something in her resists this easy way out. It’s relentlessly depressing, but it also felt more honest than a lot of films that claim to present a sympathetic view of addicts. The film refuses to let Justine’s alcoholism define her and the contradictions that are inherent to her character are fully realised. You won’t walk away from this feeling happy, but it has the courage to avoid softening its most painful blows.
Justine (Tallulah Haddon) is a longtime alcoholic who supports herself by working within the drug dealing industry. Her life changes when she meets Rachel (Sophie Reid) and the two briefly enter into a romantic relationship. Rachel has more prospects than Justine does and plans to move to Barcelona to serve as an English teacher. Their circumstances threaten to tear them apart but Rachel’s willingness to take care of Justine means that their relationship continues, despite the struggles they face.
Rachel brings some much needed levity to this story as she is the one ray of light in Justine’s otherwise miserable existence. Reid brings a fresh, persuasive presence to the screen and she plays Rachel as a warm, caring person who is burdened by the fact that she is unsure of herself. On paper, she could have just been the polar opposite to Justine. Yes, the differences between them are striking as Rachel has several educational qualifications, has secured a stable job in another country and has ambitions beyond getting drunk everyday.
But at the same time, Rachel is somebody who is tender and eager to reach out to somebody who exists outside of the social strata that has surrounded her for most of her life. You could accuse her of simply wanting to flirt with disaster, but her fascination with Justine seems to extend beyond that. She is captivated by somebody who doesn’t struggle with the anxiety and nerviness that she faces everyday. Justine is making all the wrong decisions, but she is able to project an image of being somebody who has made her mind up about what she wants to do. Reid is so good at bouncing off of Justine by responding to the facade that she has built up in a different manner to the audience. We can see all of the ways in which Justine is faking it, but Rachel can’t and it is bittersweet to put yourself in her shoes and try to look at the troubled protagonist through rose-tinted glasses.
The use of Brighton as a location is also crucial to our understanding of these characters and their difficult relationship. Rachel is somebody who doesn’t look entirely comfortable in the public parks that Justine frequents, but she can freely roam the streets without having to look over her shoulder. We see her relaxing as she steps into a café that is mostly reserved for middle class people and prepares to drink some coffee. She and Justine are on equal footing in this location and they can connect for one brief moment in time.
There isn’t any overt effort to present this as the posh tourist trap that it’s sometimes seen as, eg. in comedies featuring actors like Celia Imrie and Bill Nighy. There is a nice mixture of brutalist, hulking apartment buildings and two storey villas which clearly belong to financial advisors and their trophy wives. This mixture of different buildings only adds to the underlying tension at play and yet the cinematography doesn’t feel the need to overtly make this point. The nighttime scenes have the right seedy, discomforting feel about them as Justine stumbles through anonymous locations that she won’t remember in the morning. There is something nightmarish about the fact that everything around her blends together and you dread the moment when she inevitably falls down on the roadside or in the middle of a tunnel.
You keep waiting for the big scene where somebody who is close to Justine, is going to tell us about the traumatic event from the past that triggered her alcoholism. Then we expect to see her quickly working through that trauma and then giving up on drinking altogether. I was so relieved when that did not happen and we realise that Justine drifted into this dead-end situation. She wasn’t assaulted at a young age and her mother never abused her. She comes from an upper middle class family and has a loving mother who would still like to reconnect with her, if she can give up on her bad habits.
It is hard to watch her self-destruct for reasons that are not obvious, but we can still find it in ourselves to sympathise with her. You can feel her choking on her own self hatred and embarrassment when she shoplifts from a off-licence for the umpteenth time. The fact that she is able to retain some sense of pride and desire to be taken seriously, causes us to relate to her and we can feel for her as she continues to ruin her own life.
It isn’t without its limitations as Haddon’s performance can often feel overly studied and mannered. She is still able to get across Justine’s conflicted nature, but there are times where she seems to be straining too hard to appear at once vulnerable and outwardly defensive. The budget also poses a problem on occasion as there are times when you wonder whether director Jamie Patterson could have thrown in more visual flourishes if he had more financial backing. Despite my minor complaints, this is a highly accomplished independent feature that deserves a wider audience.
RELEASED ON DEMAND 5 MARCH 2021 EXCLUSIVELY ON CURZON HOME CINEMA