out of Five
Running time: 104
Enjoyable drama with a distinctly spiteful edge to it, enlivened by a terrific central performance from Annette Bening and some strong support.
Hungarian director Istvan Szabo knows a thing or two about theatre movies – he directed the 1981 Oscar-winning classic Mephisto, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as a famous actor seduced by the Nazis. Here, Szabo returns to the same period setting for Being Julia, adapted from the novel Theatre by Somerset Maugham.
Clearly, the combination of the theatre and the 1930s is somewhat lucky for Szabo as the film is already generating Oscar buzz, largely for a tour de force of a performance by Annette Bening.
Pre-War London Setting
The film is set in London in 1938. Annette Bening plays famous stage actress Julia Lambert, whose marriage to her handsome impresario husband Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) has become stale and unfulfilling. When her current “gentleman friend” Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood) decides that they shouldn’t be seen together in public anymore, Julia seeks solace in an affair with a young American man named Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), who claims to be her biggest fan.
The affair goes well and seems to put a stop to Julia’s impending mid-life crisis. However, “T-O-M” (as she nicknames him) turns out to be something of a “C-A-D” and Julia’s eventual revenge gives new meaning to the phrase, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”…
Annette Bening might seem like a strange choice to play a British actress but she pulls it off beautifully, even if it does take a few minutes to get used to her. It’s a glorious part and one that allows her to give full rein to a huge range of emotions, from exhilaration to depression, to the giddiness of a new crush and so on.
On Film 2004, Jonathan Ross said that it’s the sort of part you could imagine Bette Davis playing in the 1940s and he’s not wrong, particularly when it comes to Julia’s vicious vengeful streak; the whole film builds towards the revenge sequence and when it comes, it doesn’t disappoint.
Oscar Buzz For Bening
The supporting cast are also excellent. It’s a treat to see Jeremy Irons in a decent role again and he makes the most of his scenes here. Similarly, Bruce Greenwood gives a touchingly sensitive performance as Julia’s only real male friend; their final scene together is a delight. In addition, there’s strong support from Juliet Stevenson, who gets most of the film’s laughs as Julia’s sharp-tongued dresser.
However, full scene-stealing honours go to Michael Gambon, who has several terrific scenes as Julia’s deceased mentor Jimmie Langton, who occasionally appears to offer sterling acting advice from beyond the grave, with lines such as, “Tongues, darling. That’s what it’s all about. Tongues.”
In short, Being Julia is an enjoyable film, with an agreeably sharp, occasionally quite spiteful script and a potentially Oscar-winning performance from Anette Bening. It would also make a good double-bill with Stage Beauty, particularly as both films feature a powerful on-stage climax.