I Am Ruth (Channel 4) is seasonal fare in the strictest sense: a wintry tale of hunkering down to survive emotional blizzard after emotional blizzard and hoping to emerge into the pale, watery sunlight when the storm has passed.
This tale of a middle-aged mother locked in an almost mute struggle with her closed-off teenage daughter is the latest in Dominic Savage’s increasingly magisterial chronicles of female experience. Kate Winslet is the mother, Ruth (a name with biblical connotations of patience and compassion, both of which are needed here and tested to their limits). Her sullen offspring, Freya, is played by Winslet’s real-life daughter, Mia Threapleton. There’s no need to worry – they are equally brilliant in their respective roles.
The plot is slight. Possibly too slight for the 90-minute length and this might have worked better at the customary hour Savage’s other entries in the I Am … series have been. Although it has clearly been designed as a slow burn, as most standoffs between parents and adolescents are, there are, nevertheless, stretches where the tension dissipates rather than continues to build. On the other hand, Winslet and Threapleton are so good, so real, so endlessly watchable that an hour might well have felt too short.
The dialogue is spare (Savage works in close collaboration with his actors, and all lines are fully improvised). Freya frequently doesn’t speak when spoken to and Ruth is reduced to a stream of entreaties and increasingly desperate calls of “Darling!” as she tries to penetrate the miasma that envelops her daughter.
At first it seems that we are dealing with flawed but normal family dynamics. Freya surely resents the easy rapport her brother Billy has with their mother. (Joe Anders here has a smaller part than Winslet’s or Threapleton’s, but he does equally fine work alongside the two powerhouse performances. There is no mention of a husband, partner or ex for Ruth is mentioned at all, and she leans on Billy too much – asking his advice about Freya, asking him to try to find out what’s wrong and report back. But the portrait of her relentless frustration and powerlessness is so convincing that even if you haven’t had her brain-frying experience yourself, you sympathise almost entirely. For the first quarter of the drama at least, you just want to shake Freya.
As we see – what Ruth does not – Freya in her bedroom, alternately posing for increasingly risque selfies and curling up beneath her duvet in despair as her notifications pile up, it becomes clear that there is something more than normal teen angst or rebellion at work. Or is it normal? One of the underlying questions posed by this drama is whether social-media misadventures – especially for girls and young women – must now be considered a standard part of the growing-up process. If so, how can parents and children possibly navigate such uncharted and deeply dangerous waters? What do you do when the world no longer means only the tangible threats, the known risks that were once all we knew? The main narrative is interrupted at points by scenes of Ruth swimming in the sea, anxiously looking round over the freezing, choppy waters. As metaphors go, it’s a bit too on the nose, but it’s hard to think of a more accurate one – although Winslet might have wished for a warmer alternative.
Although spare, the dialogue is nigh on perfect. People speak over, round, past and only occasionally to each other. And the arguments are things of malevolent beauty, like prowling beasts; moving in circles, attempts at communication going increasingly awry, viciousness descending until somehow it feels as if you are miles away from where you began. But the truth, never actually spoken, is still as distant as ever. And here, the unrestrained brutality of the young, their willingness and inadvertent ability to wound versus the adult capacity to keep that last vital shred of control, is captured in all its devastating glory.
I Am Ruth is as painful an exploration of modern motherhood and young womanhood as Savage’s previous films have been of domestic violence, the cult of perfection, the invisibility of middle age and assorted other underexamined, underacknowledged experiences. As ever, I cannot wait to see what comes next – but only after I have had time to recover from this latest offering.