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Movie Reviews

Master Gardener ★★★



Director: Paul Schrader

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell

Venice Film Festival WORLD PREMIERE

Master Gardener sailed quietly into Venice with little of the fanfare afforded to the likes of Don’t Worry Darling and White Noise. Similarly, the critical response to Joel Edgerton’s performance has been more muted than for, say, Brendan Fraser in The WhaleBut don’t let any of that fool you into thinking this is not worth checking out. While it’s a relatively safe and sedate addition to the Paul Schrader roster, it’s an enjoyable and likeable one. If anything, it’s precise because the performances from experienced actors are so effortlessly good that it’s easy to dismiss them and the film as not dynamic enough to get excited about. 

You expect Sigourney Weaver to be commanding and imperious, and she is as Norma Haverhill, the wealthy owner of a large, elegant house with beautiful, grand gardens; she employs Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) to run. ‘Gardening is the most accessible of the arts’, he tells the apprentices he trains. By day he’s a soft-spoken, compliant, exemplary employee who tends to his plants with love and total commitment. He speaks knowledgeably and with a quiet awe of the magic of what seeds can become if nurtured and cared for properly. It’s clearly a metaphor for his own life because in the comfort of his small cottage on the property when he removes his clothing, his body is covered in swastikas and other neo-Nazi symbols. Narvel is a man who was taught to hate and did so with vigour. Given an opportunity to change his ways, however, he took it, gave evidence against his former colleagues from that world and as part of the deal, was given a new identity, new life and a handler who he can turn to for help and advice when he needs it. It comes at a price, though, he can no longer have contact with his family, including a young daughter. Each night now, he religiously writes his thoughts in a journal and mostly lives an austere life as one of the brooding loners Schrader specialises in (the most famous, of course, being Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver).

Norma Haverhill gave him another chance at life, and Narvel repays her by looking after her beloved gardens and occasionally her sexual needs. But Norma has undisclosed medical issues. She doesn’t know if she will be around much longer. She needs an heir to take over her gardens. Enter Maya (Quintessa Swindell), the biracial daughter of her estranged, now dead, niece. The niece had got in with a bad crowd, and Maya has her own involvement with drug dealers who can get violent with her. At the house, she is put under the care of Narvel as an apprentice. In the troubled Maya, Narvel sees something of his old, lost self. He soon begins to develop romantic feelings for the young woman, which leads to conflict with Norma and a dangerous path back to the violence he has left behind as he seeks to protect Maya from her unsavoury associates.

Edgerton’s subdued, bowed performance is somewhat reminiscent of Anthony Hopkin’s restrained butler in The Remains of the Day, albeit, with a rougher edge and menacing undertone, the violent young man never too far from the carefully controlled surface. That makes him believable in flashbacks as the hard extremist of his youth. Swindel stands her ground solidly against him as Maya. 

Master Gardener doesn’t break new ground, but not every film has to. Everything about it, from the cast to the story, has a reassuring solidity and familiarity about it. But it is not without its moments of beauty, and its overall comforting tone is what makes it stay with you longer than some of the flashier efforts at the festival.

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