Review: Good performances can't save 'Miss Julie'

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Posted: Dec 02, 2014 7:18 PM
Review: Good performances can't save 'Miss Julie'

The battle of the sexes and classes rages on in director Liv Ullmann's adaptation of August Strindberg's infamous 1888 play "Miss Julie." One tempestuous Midsummer's Eve finds a vast country estate nearly abandoned, save for the eponymous baron's daughter (Jessica Chastain), John the valet (Colin Farrell), and Kathleen the cook (Samantha Morton).

The original play, borne out of Strindberg's naturalistic phase, pits this privileged woman, entitled and depressed, against the arrogant, social-climbing valet. Miss Julie was taught by her unconventional mother that she is equal to all men, and that she should hate them. John, intelligent and well-travelled, meanwhile, imagines that he is above his station in life and aspires to escape.

Put together, without social constraints to confine them, John and Miss Julie bicker and flirt mercilessly. But destruction and ruin become imminent as the night progresses and the booze flows.

On paper, it sounds riveting. Sexy, bold and modern, the play was banned in some countries when the first productions were in the works. It's no wonder that the biting tragedy has endured for 120 years. But, here, "Miss Julie" has been reduced to an actorly exercise and, unfortunately, an overlong bore.

Plays can be temperamental as source material. Dramas imagined for the stage can easily turn claustrophobic and dull on the big screen. What is theatrical is almost inherently anti-cinema.

Ullmann made the conscious choice to keep everything small and contained. In doing so, she made some slight changes, adapting Strindberg's original Swedish text to English, moving the location to Ireland and expanding the role of Kathleen.

Beyond that, Ullmann remains incredibly, uncompromisingly faithful to "Miss Julie's" dramaturgic origins. Staged like a play, this is a lovingly classical adaptation through and through, from its sentimental score, to its delicate performances and contained setting.

Most of the action takes place in the estate's large, beautiful kitchen. There, the camera remains largely static, alternating between close-ups and two shots of Chastain and Farrell. Relief comes in the rare moments when Ullman and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman let the camera glide gracefully with the actors, who, it should be said, are marvelous.

Chastain's every word is laced with a depressive weight so heavy it feels as though her fragile frame might collapse at any moment, while Farrell seamlessly alternates between brutish haughtiness and full-body despair. And despite the limited role, Morton steals every scene she's in as the stoic, deeply moral cook. Morton's character is also the audience's only real human window through which to observe the volatile leads.

But at more than two hours, it's just too much of too little. Every emotional note becomes relentless even as Ullmann tries to offer shifting perspectives (i.e. she'll occasionally choose to shoot Farrell even when Chastain is having a big breakdown moment off-screen and vice versa).

All this might be less of a problem if Alf Sjoberg hadn't created the gold standard for filmic adaptations of "Miss Julie" in 1951. The Swedish director, who film devotees will know as Ingmar Bergman's longtime mentor, used shadows, wind, exteriors and flashbacks to give life to his black and white masterpiece.

Ullmann couldn't be more connected to this esteemed history, either. In Bergman's films, Ullmann proved herself one of the finest actors in cinema. She has also said that "Miss Julie" was a role she'd always yearned to play.

It's admirable that she strived to create something of her own. Ullmann has taken the utmost care with her lush, final product that a few theater students and Strindberg devotees might enjoy. But noteworthy performances and good intentions can't save "Miss Julie" for the rest of us.

"Miss Julie," a Wrekin Hill Entertainment release, has not yet been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 129 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/ldbahr