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Being Julia is Sony Classics' attempt to
out-Miramax Miramax in the year-end competition for Academy Award nominations, literate
period-costume subdivision. Based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel, Theatre,
it is redolent with the aroma of the floor boards, spiced with the overripe theatricality
of thespians, and blessed with the grace of a radiant Annette Bening playing Julia
Lambert, a star of the West End stage in the 1930s. Do not expect the slightest
recognition that there was a Great Depression going on; this is escapist material about
the amusingly self-involved people of the theeatah.
Lambert is at the peak of her career, but she's dissatisfied, concerned about aging and bored with her husband (who is also her producer and director), Michael Gosslyn (Jeremy Irons), with whom she has a long-standing agreement, ever-so-worldly. "Michael and I lead separate lives," she assures her less than amorous boyfriend, Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood). Charles remains attentive but unresponsive; his interests lie elsewhere.
Thus the stage is set for the entrance of a callow, but handsome and virile young American, Shaun Evans (Tom Fennel), employed by Gosslyn as a specialist in tax avoidance, who promptly, with all the subtlety of an overheated goat, makes a play for Julia. In her current state of mind, she doesn't put up much resistance and soon falls into his arms.
Good, lusty sex is the perfect tonic for a mid-life crisis; it's not only pleasureful, it's restorative, deep physical satisfaction providing reassurance that youth has not completely flown. But love between a woman of a certain age and a man young enough to be her son is prima facie dangerous, a novelistic cliche of the first order. Fortunately, the formula is handled so lightly here that it's easy to buy in. Similarly, Julia's physical attraction to Evans is understandable, but an experienced, sophisticated woman falling in love with this witless, overambitious rube does stretch credulity. Julia's delighted giggles fill the soundtrack--who would begrudge her her pleasures?
Of course, it will get more complicated and realities will intrude upon romance. The Fall is as steep as the Rise. An ordinary woman might simply go off and nurse her wounds. But a prima donna of the theeatah will have her theatrical revenge.
Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, who, in Sunshine, rather ran off at the edges, here keeps the schmaltz contained, demonstrates first class skills at film narrative, and keeps it all at the level of lightness the script requires. Characterizations are not deep, but a cast of remarkable actors inject personality into their roles. Bening (American Beauty, Open Range), whose stage experience especially suits her for this role, and Irons (Callas Forever, Last Call) embody Julia and Michael with relish; they seem to be having a good time throughout. ("Real actresses don't make films," Julia observes with attitude.)
Michael Gambon (The Singing Detective, Gosford Park) is notable in the role of the ghost of Julia's teacher and mentor, whose spirit and teachings continue to influence not only her professional, but her personal decisions as well. (That Julia doesn't separate the two is a key point of the film--the theater is her life and her life is theater.) Whenever Gambon is on screen there's an adrenaline rush, an injection of needed energy.
Juliet Stevenson is droll as Julia's dresser/secretary; Lucy Punch shows comic talent as Avice, Julia's own Eve Harrington; and young Tom Sturridge lends unexpected depth to the role of Julia's son, just about the only character who is not thoroughly theater-struck. Beloved veterans Rosemary Harris and Rita Tushingham make cameo appearances so brief that they only serve to leave a feeling of deprivation.
- Arthur Lazere