Wednesday, June 4, 2008

BEING JULIA (Serendipity 2004) Alliance Atlantis Home Entertainment

Istvan Zabo’s Being Julia (2004) is an adroit, often frank, occasionally meandering, but never anything less than compelling critique of life upon the wicked stage circa 1920s. The film stars Annette Benning as grand dame of the theater, Julia Lambert. Though the actress’ professional life could not be any better (she is currently wrapping up a successful London engagement and looking forward to a vacation) her temperament and frequent bouts of backstage depression render her a rather emotionally unstable spouse for manager, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons).

Michael and Julia have an open marriage – so lax, in fact, that Michael deliberately introduces his wife to scheming social climber and much too young for her, though undeniably handsome upstart, Tom Fennel (Sean Evans) with the probable likelihood that Julia will take a sexual interest in him. 

Before long, Tom and Julia do indeed become passionate lovers and Julia snaps out of her depression, bouncing back into a brand new hit show guaranteed to make Michael a lot of money. But Tom wants too much. Not content to simply accept Julia’s expensive gifts, though she is quite generous in their affair – lavishing her stud with expensive clothes, jewelry and money for travel - Tom is really after some rapid advancement for his own career and wants Julia to offer her understudy’s position to his girlfriend on the side, Evie (Juliet Stevenson).

Believing that the acceptance of Tom’s terms will bring them closer together Julia agrees; then quickly regrets her decision. Evie is a harpy and decidedly not the actress that patrons will pay good money to see. Worse, Tom has grown more distant from Julia since Evie’s appointment. Then, the truth comes out. Tom is scheming with Evie to have Julia deposed from her perch as the undisputed first lady of the footlights. Only, this time depression will not be the order of the day. A totally delicious revenge has taken its place.

Based on Sommerset Maugham's clever novel, revisited with slight revisions by screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, Being Julia is basically a clever drawing room comedy of errors buried beneath some rather contrived and maudlin melodramatic trappings. The narrative clings together – compellingly so - thanks to Benning’s tour de force, masterfully carried off with a wily sense of self deprecation. The rest of the cast pale by comparison.

Jeremy Irons is given precious little to do and does just that. His Michael ought to be something of a disreputable scamp. After all, it is through his procurement of other men for his wife that he enjoys her renewed commitments to the theater - thereby filling its coffers and affording Michael his cushy lifestyle with its more obvious perks hidden behind closed doors. Yet, Irons' Michael is a foppish milquetoast at best. He lacks guts and spark to make us invest and despise his scheming.

Sean Evans is never quite convincing as the lover driven by hidden agendas. As an audience we know immediately what his intentions are, begging the question as to how a woman as sophisticated as Julia could be so easily deceived? But Evans plays Tom as a mostly petulant manipulator. There's no subterfuge in his eagerness to get what he wants at any and all costs, no cleverness to his seductions.

The only friend that Julia really has is Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood); a closeted homosexual who wants nothing from her other than friendship, and proves time and again he is the only one able to offer Julia his rejuvenating spirit as remuneration for her enduring loyalty and kindnesses towards him.

The film's finale ramps into a celebratory mode for vengeance as Julia exposes her enemies within the context of her latest play - proving once and for all that she is the undisputed grand dame of the European stage. The premise is slightly strained, with Benning's Julia crucifying Evie in front of a live audience on opening night while pretending that their confrontation is just a part of the stagecraft. 

Evie knows better, and Tom and Michael do too as they helplessly watch Evie endure her painful public execution from the wings. In Tom's case, he realizes that his run of deceptive manipulations has come to an end. But Michael is suddenly filled with a quiet admiration for his wife.  

The film ends with Julia foregoing all the resplendent mania of after theater parties for a quiet dinner alone -  thoroughly satisfied with herself. In these final moments the film suggests, perhaps accurately so, that strange isolationism all truly creative people feel - removed from the world around them even as they are applauded for their craftsmanship by legions of adoring fans.  Perhaps then, 'being' Julia is never easy. But Annette Benning makes it all seem quite effortless and worth the trouble.

Alliance Atlantis DVD presentation is quite acceptable. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits a refined color palette with rich bold hues, very natural flesh tones and adequately rendered contrast levels. Blacks are solid; though on occasion do tend to be deep gray.

Age related artifacts are a non-issue, but edge enhancement and pixelization crop up now and then and distract. A patina of film grain is quite prevalent and more often rendered as digital grit for an image that is, at times, not as smooth as one would hope for. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite sufficient for this primarily dialogue driven presentation. Extras include a very brief ‘making of’ featurette and theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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