Believe the buzz. "Being Julia" is a four-star movie—and they're all Annette Bening.
Don't get me wrong. The supporting cast is wonderful, especially Lucy Punch, who does a great deal with a relatively small "Lena" part that could have come straight out of "Singin' in the Rain." But it's easy to see how Bening won a Golden Globe and was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Just as the stage belongs to Julia Lambert, the toast of London theater, the screen belongs to Bening, who plays 1) the jaded and worn-out veteran who pouts at the drop of a handkerchief, 2) the same woman rejuvenated by an affair with a much younger man, 3) a woman scorned who finally realizes what an old fool she's been, and 4) a devious diva who finds a way to get back on top again, as she's done her entire career.
Bening appears haggard and old in some scenes, yet radiant and glowing in others, totally capturing the almost manic-depressive highs and lows of a theatrical legend who's both a tough veteran and as vulnerable as she ever was when she first stepped foot on the stage. And the whole time that Bening is "being" Julia, we can't help "watching" Julia with all the fascination of a smitten fan.
Based on the novel "Theatre" by W. Somerset Maugham, "Being Julia" manages to capture not just the flair and the spirit of the theatrical world, but also the atmosphere of the period, with plenty of attention to small details. In fact, we find out in the commentary just how scrupulous they were about staying period when director István Szabo points out how proud he was that their staff was able to locate a vintage rowing machine and home exercise bicycle from the Thirties for a scene in which Julia and her theatrical producer-husband, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), work side-by-side trying to keep their bodies in shape for their respective dalliances.
The action takes place in 1938 London, the last carefree year between the World Wars. In another year, Hitler would invade Poland. But for now, the music and champagne flow with Twenties' gaiety, the dance floors crowded and the summer lawn parties the most serious thing on anyone's mind. The atmosphere is so rich and unobtrusively thick that one almost wishes that producer Robert Lantos and Szabo would team up again to remake that sluggishly self-conscious Seventies' version of "The Great Gatsby" so that it actually has the richness and grace of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel.
When we first see Julia, she' being coached by her mentor—the director of a provincial theatre who taught her that "When you're on the stage, acting is the only reality." Quickly, we come to learn that the flamboyant Jimmie Langton (played to perfection by the new "Dumbledore," Michael Gambon) has been dead for 15 years. But Julia maintains a place setting for him at the dinner table, "in case he drops by." She has internalized Langton in a big way, and we see him alongside her in the flesh as a projection of her imagination throughout the film, as he comments on her "acting" offstage. Because Julia's only reality becomes the theater, the reverse all but holds true in her personal relationships. As her twentysomething son, Roger (Tom Sturridge), remarks, "You have a performance for everyone." And it's usually a doozy.
"Real actresses don't make films," Julia says, and almost everything she says sounds like a line weighed for its cleverness or effect on the audience. "I feel twice my age, which makes me 90," she sighs. "There's nothing left for me now but to tour Canada and Australia." When she tries to confide to Lord Charles, her closest male friend (Bruce Greenwood), that she's fallen for Tom (Shaun Evans), a brash young American who has turned up on her doorstep like an autograph-seeking fan, she talks about it as a "role" she's thinking of playing. And Charles, meanwhile, quips, "Oh, a farce."
It's hard to tell who's being the most manipulative, but Bening and the rest of the actors elevate this well above the typical genre bedroom farce. The Ronald Harwood screenplay helps, too. The film never takes a wrong turn into the absurd or slips into dinner-theatre caricatures. Even the comic moments have an air of dignity and originality about them—and there are plenty of laughs. The exchanges between Julia and her personal attendant, Evie (Juliet Stevenson) are precious—an unpredictable combination of humor and pathos—while Miriam Margolyes manages just the right comic touch as the clichéd patron-of-the-arts who backs the play (and shows up whenever Julia's getting a massage to try to catch a glimpse of her in the "natty"). Irons is expectedly good, and Evans manages to take his character through a range of emotions and facial expressions. But perhaps the biggest surprise was Punch ("Ella Enchanted") as Avis, the scheming "little tart" who plays every game possible on the casting couch, and winds up in an alpha-female battle with the aging star she underestimates. Like Punch, this film does a lot with a little and overly familiar premise.
"Being Julia" is rated R for sexual situations and brief (male buttocks) nudity, but as Szabo says, if you want steamy love scenes, go watch another movie.
Video: Mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture is excellent. There's a slight muting of colors that one suspects was done deliberately with a filter in order to create a period look, but that, of course, is an enhancement.
Audio: The audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and when the music at the restaurants and nightclubs kicks in, you can appreciate the crispness and purity. No complaints here.
Extras: The plum of the special features is the deleted scenes package which plays one right after the other, no explanation. One scene between Julia and her personal attendant is especially strong, and I'm guessing that Szabo might be kicking himself now for not leaving it in. There's a second intimate scene between the lady and her servant that also reveals a lot about each individual and their relationship together which is nearly as strong. Then there's an extended scene at the restaurant where Julia is beset by an autograph-seeker, and a shot of Julia walking into an empty theatre in order to sit next to her mentor and chat about the stage.
As for the other extras, "The Making of Julia" isn't terribly deep or expansive. It has the feel of a 20-minute television promo to pique an audience's curiosity about the film. The plus is that all of the principles appear on camera talking about the film, and it's more than a little fascinating to hear a thick European accent coming out of the actor who played the brash American, and to hear Bening's American intonations that she had to jettison for the role. At one point on the commentary, in fact, Szabo remarks how remarkable it is to watch an American and Canadian having a conversation as two Brits. The dialogue coach must have worked overtime—but we find out in the full-length commentary featuring Szabo, Bening, and Irons, that her overtime wasn't the norm. She appears on-camera as the woman who gave Bening a massage—chosen because her son was a professional and showed her how to look like she knew what she was doing. "This was my favorite day of shooting," Bening says, "because I was massaged all day long."
The commentary itself is a mixed bag. Irons is such a venerable actor and Bening such a veteran that they are capable of startling insights at any given moment. But those moments are separated by silences and a very low-key presentation of material. Irons actually takes on the role of interviewer at times, asking Bening if her hair for a love scene was a wig, and prodding Szabo to talk about the other versions of "Theatre" (a stage version and "Adorable Julia," a film starring Lilli Palmer and Charles Boyer). Bening also makes it clear that she read the Maugham novella when she remarks, "In the book, Tom was English as well" and that sets the group talking about what a good decision it was to make him American. Irons points out his son, Max, in a scene, and they talk about shooting in the most famous restaurant in Budapest. And at one point everyone exclaims, "That's your boat!," leaving Irons to talk about "the only sailing punt left in England" that he was pleased they decided to use for the film. Bening even talks about her own Jimmie Langton, a man named Bill Ball who used to give classes in laughing. There are some wonderful moments, but, again, plenty of dead air too.
Rounding out the extras is a "behind the scenes" featurette which balances the talking heads interpretation of the film by showing scenes of the filming—the interiors shot in Hungary and the exteriors in London.
Bottom Line: The idea of a theatrical diva is as clichéd as the fat lady who closes out the opera. So is the notion of a couple with an open marriage where one partner has an affair while the other waits semi-patiently in the wings, not jealous at all. But by the time you put together an intelligent script, a rich and evocative production design, and top-notch performances, "Being Julia" transcends the tired aspects of its plot the same way that Julia herself manages to get past her own weariness and rekindle the fire that fuels her performances.