Directed by István Szabó. Starring Annette Bening, Catherine Charlton, Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon, Shaun Evans, Miriam Margolyes, Juliet Stevenson, Bruce Greenwood, Rosemary Harris, Maury Chaykin. (2004, R, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 12, 2004
There are so few really great film roles written for middle-aged women that when one comes along and it’s delivered forth in such spectacular fashion by the near-perfect Annette Bening, it’s disappointing to have to note that the movie surrounding her is not equal to her performance. Being Julia, which is based on a Somerset Maugham novella and adapted for the screen by The Pianist screenwriter Ronald Harwood, is burdened with a few too many characters and subplots and a theatrical backstage story that, but for its fabulous title character, is pedestrian and predictable. The story is set in 1938 London, which also raises the inevitable problem that always occurs when trying to create a sense of visual realism about the near-distant past – especially a past whose "film look" is something with which we’re all familiar. Bening plays Julia Lambert, the toast of London’s West End theatrical district. At 45, Julia is the reigning queen of the British stage, although she knows her days of playing leading ladies will soon be over. Yet long after the public has moved on to the next talented and pretty young thing, Julia will be the leading lady in her own life for she, my dahlings, is the real thing: a dyed-in-the-wool drama queen. She brings to her life the same theatricality and calibrated histrionics she delivers nightly on stage. There’s only one thing that can break through her emotional upper hand: love. Julia Lambert is a fool for love. She is married to her producer Michael Gosselyn (an unusually subdued Irons), with whom she has a child who is teetering on the brink of manhood. Although the marriage seems grounded in mutual admiration and affection, Gosselyn describes them as not being a "possessive couple." Thus, when the brash and ambitious American Tom Fennel (Evans) insinuates himself into this theatrical power couple’s world, Julia finds herself falling head over heels for the broke young man who lays himself at her feet. She knows he’s young enough to be her son (perish the thought), but she can’t resist the salve to her ego that his ministrations evince. Gosselyn willingly averts his eyes since his wife’s performances have never been better, and only her assistant Evie (Stevenson) appears to see things as they really are. Of course, things straighten out eventually, and the fool for love falls back to earth as she recognizes the transparency of Tom’s conniving ambition. Then, in a third act that takes until the story’s very end to bear its poisonous fruit, Julia masterminds the complete comeuppance of several characters in one fell swoop. It’s a stunningly devious stroke that, moreover, she manages to pull off under the guise of angelic helpfulness. Plus, it catapults her back to the pinnacle of London’s stage. It’s Julia’s self-awareness that prevents the character from appearing monstrous or entirely self-absorbed. And Szabó’s direction provides many choice moments of heightened revelation and disclosure for the audience. And while a few of the characters – in particular, Evie and Gosselyn’s producing partner Dolly de Vries (Margolyes), who lend things a decidedly lesbian undercurrent – most of the others are disposable. Despite this, the little drama queen who lives inside each of us will find Being Julia hard to resist.