By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Liv Ullmann's newest film, "Miss Julie," is set in rural Ireland in the late 19th century but the Norwegian actress and director says the themes of the period drama about class, power and desire are still relevant today.
Ullmann adapted and directed the film, which opens in limited release on Friday, from Swedish playwright August Strindberg's play of the same name. It depicts the social restraints and struggle for dominance between a woman and her father's valet on Midsummer's Eve, a celebration of the summer solstice.
"There is so much we have in common today with what was happening then, although it looks different today," Ullmann, 75, said in an interview. "The unfairness of how people are living today, compared to the unfairness of how people were living then, it is not better today."
Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty") is the haughty, lonely and fragile Miss Julie. The daughter of an Irish nobleman, she alternatively flirts with and then insults her father's handsome, aspiring and well-traveled valet, John, played by Irish actor Colin Farrell ("In Bruges").
On Midsummer's Eve, while the servants are celebrating and the master is away, the pair drink, dance, battle, tease and taunt each other and make love, which leads to tragic circumstances.
British actress Samantha Morton, nominated for Academy Awards for "In America" and "Sweet and Lowdown," is Kathleen, the pious cook and John's fiance, who witnesses his charged relationship with Miss Julie.
The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is set in a castle on a sprawling country estate where the servants had to enter and leave through a tunnel so they wouldn't be seen.
Ullmann said she was directing the Tennessee Williams play "A Streetcar Named Desire" in Australia when she realized how much he had been influenced by Strindberg.
"So, I started to read 'Miss Julie' and saw why Williams loved Strindberg," she explained.
When given the opportunity to write and direct a film, she knew it had to be "Miss Julie."
Although the trade magazine Variety found the acting impressive, it said Ullmann's adaptation of the Strindberg classic fails to work on film.
"There's much to admire in the performances of Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton, embodying a psychosexual triangle that implodes during a few hours' span, but admiration rather than emotional involvement is the most one feels here," it added.
(Editing by Eric Kelsey and James Dalgleish)