..

BEING JULIA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon, Shaun Evans, Bruce Greenwood, Miriam Margoyles, Juliet Stevenson, Lucy Punch, Tom Sturridg
Director: Istvan Szabo
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: (English close captioning)
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Sony Pictures
Features: Cast and director commentary, The Making of Being Julia, "Behind the Scenes" of Being Julia, deleted scenes, previews
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: March 22, 2005

"Your only reality is the theater.  Anything else - the outside world, what civilians call the real world - is nothing but fantasy."

Film ***

In this time and age, few Hollywood actresses age gracefully.  Far too many attempt to cling to the desirable image of their fading youth to maintain their box office marketability and appeal.  Furthermore, the relative superficiality of the vast majority of mainstream female roles in Hollywood tends to propagate the image of women in films as merely ornamental love interests.  With such a prohibitive shadow cast over the available options, it is no wonder that truly memorable roles for women in mainstream Hollywood are so scarce.

In this sense, Being Julia (2004) is an ideal film for the maturing but still talented actress.  Its central character, Julia Lambert, is a gifted yet aging stage actress, a diva who sees the inevitable dimming of her glorious time in the spotlight and endeavors to maintain her position in center stage.  Having become increasingly bored with the theater and sensing a somewhat perfunctory quality to her acting of late, Julia desires fresh excitement and innovation, perhaps as a means of rekindling the fire and passion for her chosen vocation.

Being Julia, based on the novel "Theatre" by W. Somerset Maugham, stars Annette Bening as the conflicted actress, and in many ways, Bening thoroughly inhabits the role.  Cast opposite Jeremy Irons as her devoted husband and business manager, Bening infuses Julia with a quality of cynical world-weariness threatening to consume the still-youthful heart that beats within her.  The remedy for her pensive soul-searching, as it were, presents itself in the form of pious devotion from a young admirer, Tom (Shaun Evans).  Brought to the theater by Julia's husband to learn the tricks of the trade, the young American elicits forth an outpouring of free-spirited emotions in Julia, who succumbs to the exotic novelty of Tom's genuflections and even commences a discreet affair with the young lad.

Suddenly feeling alive and reinvigorated, Julia begins to embrace her career with a renewed passion, although it is an emotional state destined to be short-lived.  As youth appeals to youth, so is Tom's glance gradually affected towards the pretty visage of one Avice Crichton, a stunning and aspiring young actress.  Such are the ephemeral qualities of fickle youth.

Feeling increasingly shunned, Julia reaches a crisis point in her career.  With respect to Tom, she loves him scornfully and later scorns him with a bitter humor.  Unhappy as ever and wallowing in the foibles of her personal character, Julia begins to realize that her true joy is the stage and nothing more.  Neither Tom nor her husband may ultimately detract from this joy, and while Julia has a few good performances left in her, she means to intertwine reality and performance together upon the stage into the bravura performance of the limelight of her career.

Annette Bening, as Julia, brightens every scene she is in.  She is at once bubbly and troubled, her outwardly cheerful demeanor disguising a conflicted inwardly eye.  Hers is a multi-faceted performance worthy of some of the great divas of Hollywood past.  Indeed, Being Julia focuses upon the inevitability of middle-age status in actresses, a theme that has been broached before in such films as John Cassavetes's Opening Night with Gena Rowlands or most memorably in Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve with the incomparable Bette Davis.  Bening acquits herself quite admirably in such heightened company, the quality of her performance being reflected in her selection by the National Board of Review as Best Actress.

Bening's supporting cast is fairly decent, too, although the film belongs to Bening.  Jeremy Irons, as the somewhat aloof husband, has established a solid niche for himself in portraying prim and proper English gentlemen.  However, he has a devilish twinkle in his eyes, and in Being Julia, betrays a hidden, if as yet untapped, affinity for sly British humor.  Michael Gambon, as the ghost of Julia's mentor, pops up intermittently to whisper words of advice into the disenchanted diva's ear; he is really a figment of her imagination but serves the role of revealing her innermost thoughts and insecurities to us, the audience.  Bruce Greenwood, a favorite of Canadian director Atom Egoyan, is one of the industry's underrated actors and appears here as Julia's best friend, Lord Charles.  Though they are affectionately fond of one another, Lord Charles has a secret that prevents him from consummating their platonic relationship.

Lucy Punch occupies the somewhat thankless role of Avice Crichton, an ambitious young actress whose physical allure, rather than any genuine acting talent, allows her to ascend to the rank of co-star opposite Julia in her latest theatrical play.  Punch's performance, unduly mediocre (if hysterically so), is drawn in the broad strokes of so vivid a pantomime of acting that one struggles to find merit in it.  Nevertheless, Punch's Avice is such a spirited ingénue that we almost feel sorry for the surely inevitable destruction and comeuppance that awaits her on opening night, courtesy of Julia's deliciously diabolical schemings.

Being Julia is set in England during the final carefree years before the second World War.  Although centering upon the world of the theater, it is not truly a backstage drama but is perhaps more accurately described as a romantic comedy or a light drama about one character's search for inner contentment.  Being Julia was directed by Hungarian-born Istvan Szabo, whose name may be unfamiliar with most western audiences but who has had a prestigious career within the theatrical world.

Ultimately, Being Julia is Annette Bening's film from beginning to end.  It offers that rare dream role for more mature actresses, one in which they may display the full faculty of their dramatic skills.  More satisfyingly, it also provides the wickedly vicarious thrill of subduing the upstart young talent who might wish to supplant the older generation.  And while that may inevitably be the case regardless, at least in the conclusion of Being Julia, the young generation will have to wait another day until, older and wiser by the accumulation of worldly experience, they are more deserving of assuming their place in the spotlight.

Video ****

"That was acting.  If I truly felt all the emotions I was representing, I'd be a wreck."

Being Julia is shown in an anamorphic widescreen format.  This being a recent film, the print is in pristine condition and has been mastered in high definition for greater picture clarity.  The transfer rate averages between 6-7 Mbps.  Skin tones are realistic, and the colors are soft and warm in a nostalgic 1930's style.  The detail levels are clear and sharp.  Overall, this is a solid effort.

Audio ***1/2

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack for Being Julia is solid if dialogue-driven.  Spatial definition is subtle, given the nature of the film, but is otherwise pleasant.  Subtitles are not available, although English close captioning are an option on capable television sets.

Features **1/2

Of all the boys I've known and I've known some,
Until I first met you I was lonesome,
And when you came in sight, dear, my heart grew light,
And this old world seemed new to me.

            - "Bei Mir Bist du Schon," The Andrews Sisters

The bonus features on this disc include a couple of featurettes, a commentary track, and several deleted scenes.  The first featurette, The Making of Being Julia (6 min.), is fairly self-explanatory.  Scenes from the movie are shown during rehearsal or actual filming.  These candid clips are offered in a montage without narration and are backed by the film's gently romantic music.  The second featurette, "Behind the Scenes" of Being Julia (9 min.), is a candid look at the premise of the film, with words from Annette Bening and other members of the cast.  The actors also describe their own characters and their motivations in Being Julia.

Relatively speaking, the most interesting bonus feature on this disc is the commentary track, which unites stars Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons with the film's director Istvan Szabo.  Generally, the tone is somewhat self-congratulatory, with the actors expressing their appreciation for their director and the crew and vice versa.  The commentary feels safe if slight and not particularly insightful, and there are stretches during which no commentary is heard at all.

There are also deleted scenes (5 min.) from the film.  Presented in a continuous stream, the excised scenes are comprised of a morning scene between Julia and her maid and a related café scene in which Julia tries to pick up a random stranger, a brief rehearsal scene for Julia, and finally a scene in a darkened theater between Julia and her departed mentor.

Rounding out the extras are previews for Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education, Zhang Yimou's mesmerizing House of Flying Daggers, Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice, and Charlize Theron in Head in the Clouds.

Summary:

Occupying center stage in nearly every frame of Being Julia, Annette Bening really revels in her role as Julia Lambert.  This is certainly Bening's most substantial film role to date, and backed by a fine supporting cast including Jeremy Irons, Micheal Gambon, and Bruce Greenwood, Bening truly claims the spotlight in a triumphant, bravura performance.

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com