Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Film Review: Being Julia

"Being Julia" **** (out of ****)

Watching "Be-ing Julia" (2004) made me realize, once again, what kind of wonderful charming, nostalgic movie this is. I had almost forgotten how pleasurable the movie is to watch.

I remember seeing this Istvan Szabo comedy back when it was released in 2004. I even went to see it opening day and even than I thought it was one of the best films of the year and thought Annette Bening gave not only one of the best performances of the year but one of the best performances of her career.

The movie was based on W. Somerset Maugham's (best known for "Of Human Bondage" and "The Painted Veil") novel "Theatre" and was adapted by Ronald Hardwood, who was coming off great success after winning an Oscar for his screenplay for Roman Polanksi's "The Pianist" (2002). For a while he was a hot property writing films like "The Statement" (2003) and Istvan Szabo's previous English language film "Taking Sides" (2003).

I should admit Istvan Szabo is one of my favorite filmmakers. He might not be one's first choice to direct this kind of English comedy but it does share one trait with one of his most popular films, "Mephisto" (1981). Both films are about the theatre and actors who use the theatre for their own personal advantages. In "Being Julia" though the consequences aren't as bleak. "Mephisto" was a modern adaption of the Faust legend, about an actor who sells out to the Nazi Party in return for fame as an actor. In this movie however an actress learns to mask her true feelings in the name of the theatre, which is where she was lead to believe the "real world" exist. Only the theatre is real. Nothing else matters.

Szabo though is a filmmaker known for making movies about his homeland's (Hungary) past. I have included one of his film in my "Masterpiece Film Series", "Szerelmesfilm (Love Film, 1971)". His other films include "Apa (Father, 1967)" and "Tuzolto utca 25 (25 Fireman's Street, 1973)". Each films deals with a trouble part of Hungarian history, usually the 56 uprising where a Soviet army crushed the spirit of young Hungarian protesters attempting to send a message to the rest of the world that Hungary did not embrace Communism. His masterpiece, in my opinion, is "Sunshine" (2000) an English language movie which most recently I declared one of the best films of the decade. But in "Being Julia" there is no mention of Hungary. The film has nothing to do with the outside world.

The film takes place in 1938 London, where the famous actress Julia Lambert (Bening) is in need of a rest. Acting is a hard job. Julie is at that point in her life where she no longer feels like a woman. Middle age is catching up to her and her mundane life of parties, meaningless affairs, and various stage plays no longer bring her the enjoyment she once felt. She needs a change of pace and demands her agent/husband, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons, who had a similar role in another movie in 2004, "Callas Forever", which is equally great) close down her latest play, which is a hit. She wants to take a vacation and visit her family.

But Julia is introduced to a young American, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), whom Michael has agreed to help show the ropes to. Tom has been hired as an accountant but really wants to meet Julia, whom he say he has been a fan of her years, catching her every performance. But we suspect Tom is nothing more than a social climber, using Julia and Michael to achieve greater needs. Regardless they start an affair which breathes new life into Julia and may have even improved her acting.

Julia professes a great love for Tom but events soon turn sour when a young actress enters the picture, Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch, who is set to appear in the next Woody Allen film). She too is a social climber, and has managed to seduce Tom away from Julia. Since there have been rumors Tom and Julia have been having an affair, Avice feels if she can get Tom's ear, he might talk to Julia about allowing her to audition for a new play Julia is doing. Though by this time Julia is well aware of what is going on and Tom's true feelings.

To some the story may sound slightly predictable or a little goofy but Szabo, Harwood and Bening pull off the endeavour with great skill and style. The movie has a sense of good natured fun. Nothing in the film can truly be taken seriously. It should be viewed as a light hearted farce. More skeptical viewers might feel the marriage between Michael and Julia isn't realistic or underdeveloped. Others may feel Julia's action are "too theatrical". In real life characters wouldn't behave this way. If you think this way though you will be disappointed. Plus, people will then be able to rightfully accuse you of having no sense of humor.

There is also an interesting theme concerning the actor's mentality. Always with Julia is the spirit of her deceased acting mentor, Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon, probably best known for his role in the "Harry Potter" films as Dumbledore. He also worked with another distinguished Hungarian director, Karoly Makk in "The Gambler" (1997) where he played Dostoyevsky). Jimmie gives Julia acting lessons for life, dictating to her how to behave in real situations. Telling her the best way to deal with life and all its messiness is by acting her way out of it. Acting will be her shield. It is through her acting she will be saved. Heavy handed? Not really. Especially not the way the material is presented here. It is carefree and fun. Not serious and meditative.

The film is also able to invoke a great nostalgia through the wonderful musical score, which compliments particular scenes quite beautifully, revealing to us character's feelings, though sometimes the songs are too much on the money and overstate the situations. The score includes; "Nobody But You", "Mad About the Boy", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", "Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries" and "I Get A Kick Out Of You".

And I have to mention the cinematography by Lajos Koltai, Szabo's long time collaborator, now turned director. He gives the film a lavish colorful look. Much like they did on their follow-up film "Rokonok" (2006), which shamefully has not been distributed in America (I saw it at the 2006 International Chicago Film Festival).

The movie received much acclaim, all of it for Bening's performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award, won a Golden Globe and won a National Board of Review award. Strangely enough Szabo's name wasn't on everyone's lips. Even the film's poster doesn't make mention that he directed the movie. You'd think a movie directed by one of the great figures in cinema would use his name as a marketing device. Either way, I'd suggest seeing "Being Julia". It is a wonderful, lighthearted movie oozing charm. A modern masterpiece.