Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: "Miss Julie"

Director: Liv Ullmann
Runtime: 129 minutes

During one of the climactic scenes of Miss Julie, the titular character implores her valet to stay by her side because he understands her. She may very well be right about her assessment, considering the tumultuous evening and morning spent with her servant over the course of the film. But even if the valet does understand Miss Julie, that same understanding of character appears to elude writer and director Liv Ullmann in her adaptation of August Strindberg's play. Powerful (though sporadically overheated) performances from the three main actors are the only real draw in this uneven and often stagey production.

Tensions between the sexes have appeared in numerous recent releases, but Miss Julie has the advantage of working in a discussion of class. Over the course of a midsummer night in 1890s Ireland, wealthy Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) will do her best to coerce her valet John (Colin Farrell) into seducing her while his fiancee Kathleen (Samantha Morton) watches. With Julie's father, a baron, gone to a party and the rest of the servants at their own celebration, it doesn't take long for tensions to rise. The baron's estate is quite spacious, even encompassing a wide stretch of lush forrest, but the characters are increasingly trapped by their surroundings, with only each other as company.

The first 15 minutes or so don't bode terribly well, and may be enough to convince some that spending time with these three isn't worth it. The opening passages of the story are written and performed in a halting, stiff manner that seems like the work of a nervous theater troupe on opening night. When Miss Julie charges into the kitchen to start toying with her two servants, scenes are cut together with amateurish abruptness. Revealing a character's motivations over time is hardly new, but Miss Julie's initial, erratic behavior rings false because there's nothing to latch onto. A brief prologue with Julie as a child adds nothing until the film is almost over. It creates a series of rushed histrionics, rather than a clear arc for the character. Chastain does the best she can, but the character is too unformed at the start for anyone to really make sense of.

This isn't helped by the structure of the first half of the film, which positions Julie as a listener and observer instead of an active participant. The writing is so enraptured with John's past that at times one wonders why the story was named after Miss Julie at all. Pitting two characters against each other for long periods of time can be powerful stuff, but it tends to work better if both sides are engaged at the same time, rather than standing idly by as if they're in a formal debate.

The subject and setting, with its isolated characters confronting their own demons and each other, certainly seems like an ideal fit for Ullmann. As the longtime partner of Ingmar Bergman, she's had her fair share of experience with stories like Miss Julie, albeit in front of the camera. Yet even Bergman's smallest, simplest stories with captured with a visual dimensionality that transcended the limitations of the stage. Miss Julie, by contrast, is often quite flat. The subject matter doesn't demand any flashy tricks, but at times Ullmann's framing is so mundane that you might as well be watching the actors on a stage. More curious is how the staginess of the direction has seeped into the performances. The cast appears to have been directed to over-emphasize every huff and puff and gesture (good god, the hand gestures) as though they're trying to make sure people in the nosebleed seats can hear them. They're playing to the rafters, when there's a perfectly good camera and sound team only a few feet away from them.

Yet even though the performances boil over, they remain compelling. The longer Miss Julie goes on, the more consistent all aspects of the filmmaking become. The first half belongs to Farrell, who delivers some of the best acting moments of his career as the lowly valet turned unwilling seducer. There's an earnestness and vulnerability to the performance that shows a different side of the actor after his strong work in a few dark comedies. It's through John that Strindberg's ideas about class and equality first appear, and Farrell makes the most of his early monologues. 

And after a rocky start, Chastain really takes hold of the titular role. The character gains considerable dramatic breathing room as the film progresses, which benefits the actress considerably. As Miss Julie starts to lose control of herself and come unraveled, Chastain goes in the opposite direction and begins to dominate the movie. She captures Julie's mix of haughty superiority and deeply buried fragility with powerful results. When Julie is pushed to her breaking point, she explodes with a volcanic fury that Chastain turns into what might be the most harrowing piece of acting she's done yet. The calm that follows Julie's storm is equally wrenching, finally adding some uncomfortable emotional heft to the stodgy storytelling.

Samantha Morton, meanwhile, is less fortunate. The character is an important wrench in John and Julie's bleak little duel, but Morton has even less room for nuance than her co-stars. With more to do, Morton's Kathleen could have been an invaluable supporting player. Instead, she's a distraction from the appetizing possibilities of John and Julie's emotional sparring. Thankfully, Morton's final appearances are worthwhile, adding a religious perspective to Miss Julie's notions of power, wealth, and servitude.

From a technical standpoint, Ullmann's film looks and sounds adequate, never getting in the way of the performances. With its limited time frame, Miss Julie doesn't have lots of opportunity for change, so costumes and sets are kept to a bare minimum. The lone noteworthy behind the scenes contributor is cinematographer Michail Krichman, who has at least lit and shot everything quite nicely. Several key shots involve harsh white light falling on the sides of the actors' faces, and they lend a stark beauty to images with limited visual possibility.

Miss Julie certainly ends much stronger than it begins, but the ideas of Strindberg's play still lack elegance. Somewhere in the original text is the potential for a well-rounded examination of the author's themes, but this version isn't quite up to the task. It hits its points in fits and starts, and saves too much of most powerful material for the end, leaving the early stretches quite malnourished.

Grade: C+

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