Being Julia

The Academy Award nominations came out recently. Now begins the time of year where I catch up with all the films I missed that got nominated. Sometimes, it can be a scramble.

Being Julia played near me for a couple of weeks when it first opened, but either there was something else to see or it was one of those weekends where I had something else to do. Most probably, however, I was scared off the reviews, which universally said: Annette Benning-great; rest of film-so-so. But even back then there was Oscar talk for her. I should have listened. When the nominations were announced, I hadn’t seen any of the movies in the Best Actress category. Although in my defense, Million Dollar Baby hadn’t opened in Durham yet.

Being Julia is set in the flamboyant world of pre-war London theatre society. Julia Lambert is an aging leading lady who is in a loving but lustless marriage with Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) and a weird platonic relationship with a gay man, Lord Charles. (Bruce Greenwood) She has been treading the boards for so long that the line between performance and honest emotion is blurred in real life. In fact the vision of her old acting coach, Jimmy Langton (Michael Gambon) keeps appearing to her and giving her notes on her performance in the soap opera she makes of her life. Speeches that she’s made in shows come out word for word in everyday situations and they are delivered much more convincingly than on stage.

She has an affair with Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), a young American, who’s pretty good at acting naive and charming, but who really has an agenda all his own. He dumps her for Avice Crichton, (Lucy Punch) an aspiring actress and then uses Julia to get that actress a part in the next play.

Julia uses all her considerable skill to exact revenge. It is painful to watch as Avice is upstaged and humiliated in a particularly cruel fashion, which Tom is forced to watch.

OK, let me get it out of the way: Annette Benning as Julia is great. She sweeps through this role, obviously relishing every second. It’s fun to watch. Jeremy Irons is effective as the cool dignified Michael, who’s more interested in the business side of show business. Shaun Evans merely serves as Tom.

The problem is the script. You never really get to Julia’s true motives. She’s so wrapped up in acting you can’t trust her reactions even when she alone in a scene. This is, perhaps a deliberate choice. But it doesn’t sit well. Was she really in love with Tom? What were his motives? You need this information to know if the moral equations balance. You don’t get it. The result is puzzling and ultimately unsatisfying.

So, I guess I concur with the other critics. Where does this leave Annette Benning in the Oscar chase? As an underdog to Hilary Swank in a two way race. The exact opposite position they were in in 1999 when Swank won for Boys Don’t Cry. So, who knows what will happen?


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February 2005
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