Movie review: 'Being Julia'

EntertainmentTheaterMoviesEnglandRonald HarwoodBruce GreenwoodAnnette Bening

3½ stars (out of 4)

Annette Bening plays Julia Lambert, an aging grand diva of the '30s London stage, in Istvan Szabo's "Being Julia." And though you may be surprised at the casting, the American actress has a lot of elegant, witchy fun with the part. So do the moviemakers, who often make "Julia" seem a bit of a holiday.

Holidays, though, can be welcome, especially if they have a story, cast and star as glamorously amusing as this one. There's an eternal carnal sparkle in Bening's eyes that ideally suits a character such as 1938 "stage legend" Julia, queen of an empire of applause and bravura, who finds herself briefly outflanked by youthful suitors and rivals but then bests them on the stage.

At its best, "Julia" dispenses high-level sexiness and wit, plus a mordant amusement and moralism that recall the tale's original author, W. Somerset Maugham. Cursed with a faithless, deceitful young American suitor, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), and by his other, younger lover, actress/climber Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch)--as well as the temporary inattentions of her own urbane manager-husband, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons)--Julia has to battle it out on the stage, to defend her theatrical turf from her sluttish young rival Avice and erase the smug smile from ex-lover Tom's face.

All the characters in this "All About Eve"-ish backstage tale--observed a bit coolly and cruelly--are privileged and somewhat unlikable. But one cheers for Julia because Bening has one of those smiles that stabs you to the quick. Style and constancy are the qualities this film values most; that's probably why its most satisfying relationship is the one between Julia and a dead man, her cannily theatrical old ghost-mentor Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon), who keeps dispensing advice from the grave.

Julia and Jimmie are both lovable throwbacks, and "Being Julia" itself elegantly harkens to a pre-World War II era of theater and filmmaking, when Maugham and Noel Coward ruled the London stage and witty, cynical upper-class romantic comedies and carriage-trade dramas flourished there and in the movies as well.

Maugham wrote the novel "Theatre" on which "Julia" is based--and since he took almost all his stories straight from life, the original is probably a deadly accurate portrait of the backstage world behind his own plays. On screen, it unreels with mingled realism and artifice, its tone a change from the usual serious work of Szabo ("Lovefilm," "Mephisto" ) and screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist," "The Dresser"). Szabo said his model for the direction was that master of Hollywood-European romantic comedy, Ernst Lubitsch ("Trouble in Paradise," "Heaven Can Wait"), and the one-time experimental, leftist Hungarian filmmaker lays on the stylishness here, with luscious designs by Luciana Arrighi of the Merchant-Ivory films and glowing cinematography by his constant "eye," Lajos Koltai.

In the midst of it all, there's Bening, surrounded by an unusually superior English-American-Canadian cast, including Miriam Margolyes, Szabo favorite Rosemary Harris, Juliet Stevenson, Bruce Greenwood, Rita Tushingham and Maury Chaykin.

Julia might have been a role for Vivien Leigh, Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn in their day, though their days didn't include (until the very end) this kind of sexual frankness--and it becomes the right role for the radiantly sensual Bening here. Maugham, a one-time medical student, tended to view the world realistically and even harshly. But time often mellows, and "Being Julia" is becomes a kind of fairytale romantic comedy, even though youth here is the villain and age the beauty. Bening shines, and the film shines too.

"Julia"

Directed by Istvan Szabo; written by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel "Theater" by W. Somerset Maugham; photographed by Lajos Koltai; edited by Susan Shipton; production designed by Luciana Arrighi; music by Mychael Danna; produced by Robert Lantos. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: R (some sexuality).

Julia Lambert - Annette Bening
Michael Gosselyn - Jeremy Irons
Lord Charles - Bruce Greenwood
Dolly de Vries - Miriam Margolyes
Evie - Juliet Stevenson
Tom Fennel - Shaun Evans
Avice Crichton - Lucy Punch
Walter Gibbs - Maury Chaykin
Jimmie Langton - Michael Gambon

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentTheaterMoviesEnglandRonald HarwoodBruce GreenwoodAnnette Bening
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