Arriving in UK cinemas on May 26th – after making its debut at the Venice International Film Festival last year – is the drama-thriller, Master Gardener. The movie – written and directed by Paul Schrader – stars Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, and Quintessa Swindell, and follows the story of an expert horticulturalist, who takes on a new apprentice at a prestigious estate.
In the movie, Narvel Roth works at Gracewood Gardens – a beautiful, sprawling garden that is part of the Haverhill estate. The owner of the land is the wealthy Norma Haverhill, who spends a great deal of her time up at her house, and largely leaves Narvel and his team to their own devices.
One day, Norma calls Narvel up to her house to talk to him about something important. Norma’s grandniece, Maya, has recently gone through some hardships in life, and Norma wants her to come and work in the gardens under the watchful eye of Narvel.
With little to no choice about the request, Narvel agrees and soon Maya is working at Gracewood Gardens and taking to her new job very well. This brings some comfort to Norma, as she hopes that when the time comes Maya will be able to maintain the gardens and the estate in the event of her passing.
But Norma and Maya’s relationship is fractious and her arrival triggers Narvel to think about events from his own past. It is a deeply disturbing past which still looms large over his life, and is filled with secrets.
Dealing with some dark themes, which include racism and violence, Master Gardener is an intriguing drama about a man attempting to reconcile different parts of his life. On the one side, Narvel Roth is a seemingly calm, in control gardener, for a well-to-do dowager; while on the other side, he has links to Nazism and hate crimes.
Both of these things are part of who he is, and who he once was, and they inform the choices he makes moving forward. The Master Gardener is largely about Narvel’s journey, and exploring the man he is now, with a specific focus on his relationship with Maya who is a mixed-race young woman.
However, while Master Gardener presents a thought-provoking story, with some interesting ideas to latch on to, this is quite a slow-moving picture which struggles to keep its momentum going. Narvel’s story is one which has plenty of scope for something insightful or captivating, but the film fails to ever get there.
In terms of its story, Master Gardener is a bit of a bust. It’s not bad, but it’s not the film it could be.
The slow pace holds the picture back at times, with some of the more dramatic scenes falling by the wayside, due to writer/director Paul Schrader opting not to lean into any spectacle. As a result, every time the narrative begins to build a touch of suspense, it all fizzles out quite quickly with no climax.
A scene in which Narvel comes face-to-face with two drug dealers, who have caused Maya problems, is nowhere near as intense as it should be. Likewise, the film’s big resolution also doesn’t quite catch in the way could do, leaving the long, drawn-out story feeling rather underwhelming.
Where the movie works better is in the casting department, with Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver delivering fine performances. Weaver is always worth a watch, and brings a snootiness to the part of Norma, while Edgerton plays Narvel in an understated way, which makes him feel fully rounded.
It’s a shame these two actors aren’t in a stronger piece, but they at least add something to the film. Master Gardener has its moments, but it is the combination of these two actors which give it some grit.
However, as much as I enjoy watching solid, unwavering performances, I have little interest in seeing two actors simply acting, while little else goes on around them. I want a drama I can get my teeth into, and I don’t believe Master Gardener truly offers this.
Master Gardener works in places, and the central performances do a great deal of the heavy lifting, but the film isn’t as strong as it could or should be. The material is all there, and the tone that Schrader aims for feels about right, but it just doesn’t click.
A little more tension and suspense, as well as a better pay off here and there would do this movie the world of good. As it stands, there’s something here, but it isn’t as strong or as compelling as it aims to be.
Some audiences will find the Weaver/Edgerton scenes interesting enough, but unfortunately, it still lacks bite. Master Gardener is watchable, but not amazing, so keep this in mind if this film is on your radar.
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