A protégé of the famous (deceased) acting coach Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon), by 1938, Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) is London's leading lady, but she is living in a platonic limbo with her husband, impresario Michael (Jeremy Irons). When young American Tom (Shaun Evans) arrives and seeks work at the theatre, flattering her with his adulation and infatuation - Julia responds, expecting the romance to snap her out of her midlife crisis. But Tom soon finds a pretty young blonde actress Avice (Lucy Punch) more suitable to his age, even using his connections with Julia and Michael to find Avice a role in their next play. When Julia discovers that Michael and Avice are also having an affair, she shows just what a great actress she really is, on an opening night none of them will forget.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This triumphant production achieves everything the filmmakers set out to do, delivering juicy comedy and profound character study in a gripping and engaging film. In his notes to this film, director István Szabó remarks that it is only films that can show us a living human face in close up, "showing the birth of an emotion or a thought and its changing - mirrored in the expression." Using this crucial differentiator of film from all other art forms, Szabó makes maximum use of the resources at his disposal: a masterful cinematographer in fellow Hungarian, his much admired, long time collaborator, Lajos Koltai, and a superb cast, led by the extraordinary Annette Bening. All of them provide Szabó the faces and the emotions he needs, ranging from adoration, lust (several kinds), admiration, platonic love, romantic love, laughter, anger, sorrow and revenge.
Bening, supple and sensational here, creates a complete and riveting Julia, the 40 year old actress made increasingly vulnerable by the cruelty of time passing, with her passions cruising for a chance to uncoil. And young Tom steps up to the plate, barely older than Julia's son Roger (Tom Sturridge). Their passionate, laughter-filled affair takes place discreetly, but such is Julia's joy, those around her can't help but notice her glow, shine and float. Is this the same Julia who was pleading with her husband just days before to close the play so she can take a long rest?
Julia is herself a little surprised and taken aback by the affair, but she is never too shocked to stop it. Her wiles - the same wiles that kept the friendly Lord Charles from going abroad so he could amuse her - are powerful threads of silk that she weaves around her prey.
When Tom's fancy is taken with a young blonde, Julia's jealousy ignites a wicked plan - and the result is the dramatic and emotional payoff that Szabó structures carefully, from Ronald Harwood's brilliantly handled adaptation. Michael Gambon is splendid as the memory of late acting coach Jimmy Langton, whose gruff, earthy guidance comes back to happily haunt Julia whenever she needs that inner voice to egg her on.
There are layers of truth and meaning to be found in every scene, character revelations of terrific observation, a marvellous mood, admirably judged pace and several haunting images - and a teasing dash of ambiguity about Michael's acquiescence in her wicked plan. But above all, it's Bening's Julia who will remain in your consciousness as the woman whose survival in her own image requires a tour de force performance - on and off stage.
Review by Louise Keller:
Julia has appropriate words for every occasion, tears included. You may be forgiven for thinking the words sound familiar. After all, she has delivered them to audiences night after night on stage in different productions. As for her tears, they are on call, and can be called upon, on cue. Being Julia takes an elegant and entertaining look at the art of role-playing, when tapping into human nature is as natural as a woodpecker knocking on wood. Helmed by acclaimed Hungarian director István Szabó, this marvellous adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel 'Theatre' delves through superficial and fabricated layers, as perceptions and realities change. The superficial and the meaningful collide, and Szabó's multi-award winning cast and crew, deliver an intelligent and stimulating journey.
Being Julia is such an enjoyable experience. Ronald Harwood, who won an Academy Award for his script of The Pianist, has written a scrumptious script that entices us into the very theatrical world of Julia - the wife, the mother, the actress and the lover. Her talent is celebrated, but age is catching up with her; happiness is as unpredictable as a first-night audience. Annette Bening tantalizes, amuses and delights as Julia. She bewitches as we watch her superficial outward façade dissolve into tolerance and self-acceptance. The whole world is her stage, and for her, all's fair in love... and the theatre. The characters and each of their relationships with Julia are tangible. There's Jeremy Irons' Michael, whose business acumen is more vital than his role as husband, and Michael Gambon's theatre director mentor (for whom Julia still sets a place at dinner, even 15 years after his death); Juliette Stevenson's admiring personal assistant; Tom Sturridge's confiding son Roger.
Set in the 30s, when the Andrew Sisters were cautioning against sitting under the apple tree and elegance was in vogue, we get to know Julia at work and at play. She glows when infatuated by handsome young American Tom (Shaun Evans), but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and the climactic scene in the theatre as Julia dishes out her revenge on her rival, her ex-lover and her unfaithful husband, is sweet indeed. Insisting on a plain costume and keeping her back to the audience spells trouble, but no-one anticipates the delicious voracity of her upstaging technique. Her reward is reflected in each of the faces of the all-important people in her life, as they watch her performance in varying degrees of horror and delight.
Beautifully crafted, Being Julia is witty, funny, intelligent and uplifting. Don't miss it.
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ISTVAN SZABO INTERVIEW
BEING JULIA (M)
CAST: Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Bruce Greenwood, Miriam Margolyes, Juliet Stevenson, Shaun Evans, Lucy Punch, Tom Sturridge, Maury Chaykin, Sheila McCarthy, Rosemary Harris, Rita Tushingham and Michael Gambon
PRODUCER: Robert Lantos
DIRECTOR: István Szabó
SCRIPT: Ronal Harwood (novel 'Theatre' by Somerset Maugham)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lajos Koltai ASC
EDITOR: Susan Shipton
MUSIC: Mychael Danna
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Luciana Arrighi
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 17, 2005