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4 reviews, 10 user ratings

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Being Julia
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by Lybarger

"'Boring Julia' is more like it."
3 stars

Watching "Being Julia" is like seeing a racehorse with an impeccable bloodline trudging across the finish line with the rest of the pack instead of out in front of it.

Despite being based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel Theater and boasting a cast and crew of impeccable credentials, the latest film from director István Szabó ("Mephisto") and screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") feels empty and uninvolving. It's the sort of backstage drama that makes viewers regret they ever cared about what happened behind the curtain.

Annette Benning picked up a questionable Oscar nomination for playing Julia Lambert, a 40-something actress who has become the queen of the London stage. Despite the steady stream of accolades, she's getting weary of the job. Her husband (Jeremy Irons), who also runs the theater where she works, seems more interested in setting up her plays than he is in her emotional state.

Before she wallows too deeply in her ennui, a young American named Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) starts taking an interest in Julia's theater company. He supposedly has a knack for business but doesn't have the cash to back it up.

What he does manage to do exceedingly well is endear himself to Julia. As the two become more than close friends, she soon winds up showering him with expensive gifts and pursuing her acting and beauty regimen with greater vigor.

This might have been a more compelling setup if Tom weren't as easy to see through as one of Jennifer Lopez's evening gowns. Evans plays Tom as a pretty callow guy, but he lacks the charm to make Julia's returned affection understandable.

Her fling with Tom might have been more interesting if Julia's marriage weren't already something of a joke. Neither partner has ever been faithful, and her more mature and reluctantly devoted lover Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood) seems a better catch.

Szabó and Harwood do pose a potentially intriguing question: When is Julia not acting? But they rarely give viewers much of a reason to care. With so many shallow, vapid and duplicitous people running around London, it takes effort to keep interested in whether we're getting the see the real Julia or if she's a manipulator or a stooge.

Benning approaches the role with an enthusiasm and vigor that's missing from the rest of the film. You can forgive her for being mannered because she's playing a character who's rarely on the level with anyone. But when she leaves the screen, there isn't much to replace her.

Harwood also makes the bizarre decision to have Julia followed and mentored by the ghost of her former director (Michael Gambon). His instructions to her are little more than a distraction.

What's most disappointing about "Being Julia" is that Szabó and Harwood have both made backstage films that were far more engaging. Szabó's "Mephisto" was much more fun and thought provoking because Klaus Maria Brandauer's rise to fame eerily parallels the ascent of the Nazis. Similarly, Harwood wrote both the play and the screenplay for "The Dresser" where a grueling production of Shakespeare's King Lear is surrounded by and mirrors the horror of the Blitz of London.

In "Being Julia," which is set around the same time, it appears that all Londoners of the late 30s cared about was the love life of their favorite stage actress. There's a brief scene where a theatergoer makes fun of Neville Chamberlain's "Peace in Our Time" misstatement, but other than that you'd never know that that Europe is about to explode.

Szabó shouldn't be faulted for wanting to tell a more intimate story, but without the political atmosphere, Julia's romantic intrigues seem like a slight breeze in a teacup.

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originally posted: 02/24/05 16:43:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Boston Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Boston Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/25/13 Joe Smaltz Charming. Jullette is aging well, ideal for a cougher role 5 stars
12/19/06 William Goss Bening casually commands on-/off-stage drama. 4 stars
10/06/05 Ava Rice Well-acted but sour and uninteresting story. 2 stars
7/31/05 PRE Charming. Pre-war joie de vivre and a small drama. A little gem. 4 stars
6/14/05 PLR Too trivial and what about unexplained barkers playing to the theater goers. 2 stars
5/31/05 MLW Julia's revenge is indeed funny but it is to damn trivial that who really gives a damn. 3 stars
3/19/05 Mark McLeod strong performance from benning but not award calibre 2 stars
3/05/05 Gloria Anderson annette is awfully good in this 4 stars
2/05/05 dbx annette is great; consistently entertaining film, more than I can say about most films now 4 stars
9/21/04 Margo charming,see this with your mother 4 stars
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  15-Oct-2004 (R)
  DVD: 22-Mar-2005



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