Monday, December 1, 2014

August Strindberg like you've never seen him: Liv Ullmann's remarkable, masterful MISS JULIE

Every production I've ever seen -- maybe a half dozen over my lifetime -- of MISS JULIE, the oft-produced play by August Stringberg, has now been obliterated. The new movie of the play, directed with a screenplay based upon Strindberg's original, by Liv Ullmann, while seemingly true to the words and intentions of the playwright, gives such clarity, dignity and fullness to the three characters on view that it simply wipes the floor with every other version I've so far seen.

How is this possible? Because, I think, Ms Ullmann, shown at left, rather than offering up the coarsest view of these characters by catering to the most overt and envelope-pushing sexuality laid out in the play (yes, artists of a century past enjoyed pushing those envelopes, too: boot-licking, deflowering, and more than a soupçon of S&M), instead insists upon bringing these people to us as completely and fully -- physically, psychologically, emotionally -- as possible, and in the process makes them and their vehicle bloom as never before. While we certainly see them warts and all -- along with getting the full measure of class, gender and religious issues -- we also understand them and feel for them so strongly that, for the first time in my experience, I found myself not taking sides but wanting each character to somehow obtain her or his deepest longing. I am not at all sure that Strindberg himself would have countenanced this, so it has taken the talented, caring hand of a woman to bring it to fruition.

Casting is as vital to Miss Julie as in any other great play, perhaps more so because you want actors who will probe instead of giving in to the most obvious choices. Ullmann gets that from her three performers: Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell (above) and Samantha Morton (below).

Ms Morton, in particular, takes what I have always seen as the minor role here and turns it into one of major proportions. Her gravitas wrests attention from the flightier Julie and makes us consider things like the power of the Church and knowing one's place in terms of both class issues and the male prerogative and gives these such a human face that we are in emotional thrall to her. Always a splendid actress, Morton may be giving her finest performance here.

Setting the play in Ireland, rather than in its native Scandinavia works well, too, as Sweden and Ireland at the end of the 19th Century seem to have had a lot in common.

Miss Chastain certainly rises to the challenge that Ullmann has set. She gives a thrillingly real, moment-to-moment performance that keeps us off-balance and yet in her corner. She's regal, gorgeous, sexual, commanding, frightened and finally greatly changed, even before the film's ending -- which, as I recall, is more blatant here than in the play.

The film's biggest surprise may be Mister Farrell. Always a good actor, but one better known for his looks, sex appeal and physical endowments, he manages to find such specificity in his performance that his John becomes the equal in interest of the other two characters, a man for whom we understand and feel his flaws as strongly as we do his strengths.

Ms Ullmann also opens out the film, showing us more of the mansion than we ever see in the play; in addition to the kitchen in which the play takes place, we visit various important rooms, as well as the much talked-about stable where certain events are said to have occurred.

The filmmaker has inserted an interesting visual prologue, too, of Miss Julie as a young child (played by newcomer Nora McMenamy). While this may not be completely necessary, it begins the film with a lush look at the family's estate while providing some clues to the girl's parents and her upbringing. It also ties visually the film's beginning to its sad end.

Miss Julie, from Wrekin Hill Entertainment and running 129 minutes, opens this Friday in New York (at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema) and Los Angeles (at The Landmark).


Fahad Khan said...

i like your post and you blogging style.
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James van Maanen said...

Hey, Fahad--
Some interesting lists on your blog, too, as well as a mix of Bollywood and Hollywood.