Being Julia

2006-03-30 12:56


It's 1938 and Julia Lambert is the pre-eminent actress on London's West End. Beauty, natural talent and 25 years of experience have lent her the power to delight audiences regardless of material, and fill her husband's theatre night after night. But Julia is tired - tired of acting, tired of watching her figure, tired of fighting off ambitious young starlets seeking to dethrone her. Then Tom, a star struck young American, arrives on the scene and Julia finds herself falling headlong into a passionate affair with him. But Tom soon proves both fickle and callous, and uses Julia's obvious infatuation with him to secure a role for his new girlfriend in her latest play. Crestfallen, Julia gives her consent, but Tom (along with everyone else in her life) soon learns that she is not to be underestimated.


One of mainstream Hollywood's greatest failings is its over reliance on "nice" characters. Studios have convinced themselves that audiences only like it when good-natured, loveable, morally unambiguous characters win through. If a "nasty" character must win, then it must be for the right reason.

Well "Being Julia" turns all that nonsense on its head. Its heroine is a vain, selfish, manipulative and thoroughly self-absorbed prima donna. And yet, by the end of the movie, we absolutely love her.

This is due in large part to an outstanding performance by Annette Bening. Julia would be an easy character to play badly - all one need do is exaggerate her theatrical antics very slightly and she immediately slips into farce, and is reduced to a rather mean spirited clown. Instead Bening balances the diva with the real woman, moving expertly between these two poles as each scene demands. Though the considerable power of Bening's craftsmanship is undoubted, the real key to her performance is her deep understanding of the character. It is by sharing this understanding with us - by transmitting it to us - that she makes the role truly great.

When we first meet Julia we are taken aback, if not openly irritated, by her obvious facade. We quickly realise that, after all her years on the stage, she has become incapable of simply being herself. She is constantly playing roles with everyone around her, even using dialogue from plays on her friends and family as she mimes anger, sadness and joy. It's as though she has allowed her acting to seep into her life, gradually cutting her off from the people she loves. When we finally begin to see cracks in the facade - that is the moment we begin to fall in love with her.

And it is this complexity that Bening handles so expertly. Her diva antics seem to throw the "real" moments into sharp relief, but neither is allowed to overwhelm the other entirely. At times the subtle play of emotion in Benings voice and expression are utterly unnerving in their realism - realism that seems almost out of place in what is essentially a wicked comedy.

However one player cannot carry a whole production and Bening is aided in her efforts by an able and thoroughly delightful supporting cast. Jeremy Irons is at his effortless best as Julia's charming and somewhat machiavellian husband. As their son (maturely handled by Thomas Sturridge) remarks "Daddy only plays one part - the most handsome man in England". The wonderful Michael Gambon plays Julia's first director who taught her the trade. Long dead, he acts as a kind of interior monologue for Julia, cheering her victories and chiding her naughtiness. Juliet Stevenson, perhaps the most likeable actress onscreen today, is a delight as Evie, Julia's forthright cockney dresser. Like Bening, Stevenson invests her role with far more subtle complexity than might be expected.

The movie's crew are equally gifted. Hungarian director Istvan Szabo has been making films for more than 50 years, including the excellent "Sunshine" in 1999. Capetonian born screenwriter Ronald Harwood has become one of England's most celebrated writers for stage and screen. His talents were recognized by America in 2003 with an Oscar for "The Pianist", and he brings his considerable powers to bear on this masterly adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novella originally titled "Theatre".

All in all you can't help but marvel at the incredible maturity and craftsmanship of this work. You get a sense that everyone involved has paid their dues and made their money, and they are doing this simply for the joy of doing something well. The result is an absolute joy to behold - wickedly funny but not idiotic, touching but not cloying and intelligent but never dull.

Still, for all its delights, "Being Julia" is not for everyone. Its theatrical antics will irritate some, as will the large quantities of dialogue. This is cinema for grownups - you have to actually listen to the characters to know what's going on and you won't necessarily like all the characters, or even the heroine herself. But, if you give it a chance, the movie has a way of seeping into your bones and gripping you in a way that seems to contradict the frivolity and moral ambiguity of the material. At the very least watch it just to see Bening, because people are going to be talking about her performance for many years to come.

- By Alistair Fairweather

Annette Bening lights up the screen in this elegant, funny and deeply touching exploration of life on the stage.

Len 2005/02/25 11:30 PM
Ok Ok Balu abcdefg
Trudi 2005/02/25 11:44 PM
very nice... up to a point a very nice movie -- well executed-- great acting--the last bit is somewhat unrealistic -- in "real" life a scene like that would not materialise on stage and a director would certainly not be that enthusiatic about an actress altering a script the way she did... Stage Beauty
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