Director: Rupert Goold
Stars: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Darci Shaw
As pandering biopics of singing legends start cluttering award shows, the arrival of Judy seems both fortuitous and unsurprising, but the casual viewer expecting more of the same perhaps ought to be forewarned. Rupert Goold’s film – featuring a career-best and maybe the year’s best performance from Renée Zellweger – isn’t the paper-thin whistle-stop collection of greatest hits that’s quickly becoming standard. No, Judy asks more of you, it cuts deeper, and its a more robust experience for it.
The first glimpse of Garland that we see is through the eyes of young Darci Shaw, on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Under the dubious tutelage of Louis B Mayer, Garland is augmented with a regiment of uppers, downers and skipped meals, destined to shape her life for decades to come. Mercifully, we’re spared the usual historical cliff noting. Judy uses these formative moments to place Zellweger’s 45-year-old Garland into sharp relief. It’s a shatteringly tragic before/after.
1969: times have been tough. Garland’s luck has been poor. Despite her fame, she is homeless and near penury with four failed marriages behind her. In order to support her two young children, she resigns herself to a run of shows in London; dinner and songs from the former Dorothy Gale. Goold indulges us a few red double deckers to show the switch from the USA to Blighty, but more commonly (and fittingly) Judy is a film of interiors. We spend a lot of time in her expansive (but lonesome) hotel suite, as well as on stage and off at the Talk Of The Town cabaret club. The proprietor (Michael Gambon) assigns Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) to manage Garland; an initially frosty relationship that thaws nicely over the film’s two hours.
This is a character study of a person who has been chiselled into a deep groove by circumstance. Garland’s habitual pill-popping has all but denied her healthy natural sleep for what seems like most of her life. She exists, therefore, in a series of fits and starts that rarely run to anyone else’s schedule. Wired after one show, she spends the night in the company of two members of her adoring public, crashing their flat and experiencing the most unusual of omelettes.
This sequence in itself is a microcosm of the film as a whole. After relishing in the pizazz and jovial laughs which set the audience on a high, the mood chills. Garland’s heart moves closer to the end of her sleeve, and her fragile inner most is revealed, indirectly or otherwise. Zellweger’s performance of all of this is outstanding. Her Judy isn’t stilted imitation; it searches for harder-won emotional truths. Returning to the public eye after her own sabbatical, there is perhaps a shade of Zellweger’s own brittleness in the work. But don’t let that be mistaken for timidity. This is as raw as we’ve ever seen her. The real word for it is bravery.
Goold weaponises Zellweger to push our buttons. Perhaps the film’s standout sequence that doesn’t take place on a cabaret stage is set inside a good ol’ fashioned red phone box. After the initial cuteness of it wears off and Garland gets past scrabbling for change, Goold pushes in for a truly devastating exchange between Judy and her distant daughter Lorna (Bella Ramsey). Deftly, Goold’s frame becomes seeped in darkness. Our only company is Zellweger’s face in the gloom. It is genuinely affecting.
One-note moroseness would be a chore and there are moments of levity. The big band numbers are fun, and the third act curtain call has the pluckier feel of your more well established and glossier prestige pieces. The kind BAFTA like. It’s a little cheesy, perhaps, but after so much regret and introspection, a bittersweet dusting of sugar to see us out the door is welcome. Two hours still manages to feel like a lot here, though. Her ill-fated romance with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) may be a necessary way of shading Garland’s own troubled history with trust and impulsiveness, but it feels like lesser material and a lamentable tax on the running time. More nuanced (perhaps because it is played for less impact) is her slow-burning camaraderie with band leader Burt (Royce Pierreson) and the aforementioned Rosalyn.
In this regard, as with the subtle inferences of abuse during Garland’s early Hollywood days, the less-is-more approach is the wiser choice. Judy is a tragic film, as much for what befell the star as for how gamely she tried to keep herself together through it all. The resilience is hard, and heartbreaking, and thus Garland becomes an avatar for so many tales of human beings who sacrificed themselves for the masses, for the limelight, for the largess of fame. That hunger for approval is there in Zellwegger’s performance. The psychology at work in this exchange between the performer and the audience is bound up in something approaching sadomasochism.
And something also approaching love.