A review of Being Julia

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

Being Julia
Starring: Michael Gambon, Annette Bening
Director: István Szabó
Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Widescreen, Dolby
Rated: Not for sale to persons under age 18.
Studio: Columbia Tristar Hom
DVD Release Date: March 22, 2005
Run Time: 104min

Set in times past (the 1930s), Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia, written by Ronald Harwood based on a Somerset Maugham story, is a film that does not offend taste or morality, though it too is about passion. The Hungarian Szabo also directed Sunshine (2000) and Taking Sides (2003). Being Julia, about the demands and deceptions of art and love, focuses on a successful middle-age London stage actress, Julia Lambert (Annette Bening), who is beginning to lose intensity in her performances until she meets a young man infatuated with her. Their affair inspires her and makes her happier for a time: until the young man becomes infatuated with a younger woman who also happens to be an actress. I found the first half of the film a bit dull and stiff. It was hard to see what was wrong: the situation was interesting, the actors of respectable reputation, but I felt as if I were standing outside of a window looking in, not quite able to feel what the gestures meant or what the conversation was really about. Somehow, the film came alive for me once Julia’s affair with the young man becomes more unstable, especially when we see how her offstage tears do not always mean vulnerability but are sometimes just for effect. Her response to what threatens her onstage and off is what made the film fun. I’m not sure I entirely believe Annette Bening as a diva: although a good and attractive actress, her intelligence is not as fused to talent, temperament, and passion as one expects in a diva. The elements of immense charm, drive, and inevitable unpredictability one usually supposes are not really there—but I can’t say that this preoccupied me while watching the film.

Bening presents a human being, sometimes confident, sometimes insecure, not merely a highly dramatic attitude or vivid mask, either of which often is what is utilized to signify diva. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when she finds out that a man she has been friendly with, someone she has assumed is sexually interested in her is actually not, she is quickly sad, then amused, and soon welcomes him anew in friendship. Jeremy Irons, who plays her husband Michael Gosselyn, is good, I suppose, as he was in The Merchant of Venice, and other things I’ve seen him in during the last twenty to twenty-five years. It is not that I do not like or respect him. However, his look—thin, dry—and the sense one has of his intelligence and civility and usually the lack of sensuality or warmth in him have made him a complicated, somewhat unsatisfying mystery to me. I have no idea the nature of his spirit. The most appealing character for me in the movie was actually the young son, Roger, of Julia (Bening) and Michael (Irons), played by the actor Tom Sturridge; he seemed an ideal young patrician.

About the Reviewer: Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research. His work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, The City Sun, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, PopMatters.com, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, TechnologyReports.net, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, and World Literature Today.