TIFF Review: 'Miss Julie'

Miss Julie
(Norway/UK/Ireland/France, 129 min.)
Written and directed by Liv Ullman
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Here is a bizarre case. Miss Julie contains a trio of great performances, some beautiful cinematography, and handsome production value, but it has a deadness that I can't quite put my finger on. One might fault the acclaimed source material by August Strindberg for Miss Julie's stiffness, but that almost seems unfair given the pedigree of the play and everyone in the production. (And most period pics are as tight as a corset is, which generally leaves this reviewer satisfied.) More than one the servants, John and Kathleen (Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton), exclaim, “I'm tired, Miss Julie!” as the spoiled Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) plays with people as if they are dolls. Audiences, too, might also be whimpering “I'm tired” to Miss Julie long before it ends.

Iconic actress Luv Ullman directs this stage-to-screen chamber drama and she lets it rest almost entirely on the strength of the actors. Miss Julie restricts the action to the aforementioned stars (save for a younger version of Julie and a scene-stealing pug dog), but she doesn't really do much to complement the script. Most of Miss Julie plays itself out in screaming and yelling, which the three actors do brilliantly, so the film grows to almost unbearably tedious heights as the night grows and Miss Julie devolves into a full-fledged loon.

Chastain is a marvel, though, in her realization of Miss Julie's fragile psychology. Ullman's smartest bit of direction is to shoot much of the film using close-ups of Chastain's classically beautiful face in the natural light. The shadows hit her cheekbones at just the right angle to make Miss Julie look ambiguously mad, and the frequent profiles of the tragic heroine transform the beautiful star into a hot mess by the end. The dramatic range on Chastain's face alone is worth the effort.

Colin Farrell is fairly good in a surprising departure into period work. He's a dashing schmuck, heartfelt in his embodiment if the hopes and desires of the working class as Miss Julie intoxicates him with wine and her wealth. Samantha Morton, on the other hand, is heartbreaking as Kathleen. Subtly devastating in contrast to Chastain's explosive crescendo of a performance, Morton stands for another pole of the working class that has resigned itself into passivity and grown content to play with the dogs. Miss Julie excels for its characters and performances, so the riveting caliber of the acting does its part to make this a beautiful film.

Ullman, however, does little to merit a return to Miss Julie besides finding three perfect casting choices for the parts. The action shifts to Ireland and draws out some social commentary, and Ullman finds an makes effective use of the grand surroundings of Miss Julie’s estate, but she draws out the conversations and running time (the play has some original material) to near-fatal length. Her final composition, though, is a thing of beauty with its melancholy play on space, colour, motion, and offscreen action, and Miss Julie assuredly redeems herself in the end.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

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Update: Miss Julie opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on April 10.