“Why can’t we talk about it, if we’re really as in love as we say we are?” Joe asks his wife Gracie. It is a very proper question that hints at the secrets in a movie that is part arthouse and part steamy Southern melodrama.

Director Todd Haynes’ film builds on the bones of the true story of American schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who in her 30s had an affair with a seventh-grade student. He was 13, and by the time her husband alerted authorities she was pregnant. She went to jail, had their baby, came out, resumed the affair and went back for a lengthier stay. The second time she came out they married.

In Haynes’ scenario, a film is to be made of the couple’s tabloid beginnings and the actress Elizabeth Barry (Natalie Portman) – who will play the wife, Gracie – has come to visit.

Gracie (Julianne Moore) and Joe (Charles Melton) lead an apparently contented, sun-dappled existence, cosy in each other’s arms while their three children run around. They are part of an accepting community who know their lurid history but see them for they loving couple they are.

Elizabeth, gift in hand, is effusive in her thanks to Gracie for giving her access ahead of the film. “Well, I want you to tell the story right, don’t I?” Gracie says.

Elizabeth’s reasons for wanting to play Gracie are portrayed as artistic: she is attracted to grey areas and to characters who might seem repellent on the surface but have another side.

You may have guessed the domestic calm is superficial and behind closed doors Gracie falls apart. A minor snub derails her, there are undercurrents to everything, and Gracie succumbs to the pressure of having Elizabeth in the house. “She is getting on my last nerve, she’s just everywhere I look,” she says to Joe through bitter tears.

Moore has long been something of a muse for Haynes and her gift for hinting at internal turmoil suits this film well. Her vulnerable face conveys subtle emotions to shattering effect as things begin to unravel.

Under Elizabeth’s questioning, ugly little details of this May December romance keep pushing through. What would make a teacher of 36 have an affair with a seventh grader? Gracie’s ex-husband asks. What kind of person does that?

Gracie’s commitment to an idealised lifestyle with her young husband and children could be seen as an attempt to validate the relationship’s unethical, illegal beginning. It was all worth it, she has to believe. The more nagging question that inevitably pushes to the surface is how much agency a schoolboy has when a teacher decides she wants him.

The Savannah setting and spacious waterfront home with lush garden and dangling moss is made for hiding secrets, and under pressure, small contradictions pop out. Was it at the end of 6th grade or 7th that they met? Like a wasp infiltrating a nest, Elizabeth spreads her little darts of poison, keeping her profile low.

Haynes (Carol, Far from Heaven) has no qualms about delivering an accomplished melodrama ripe with unease and hints of malice. It’s a trashy story dressed as fine drama, elegantly filmed and impeccably acted, and something of a guilty pleasure to watch.

May December is in cinemas now.

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