A review of “Being Julia” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for sexual situations and language

Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

 

 

Hand over Annette Bening’s Oscar and let’s have it over with.  Hers is the most captivating performance of her career and at the movies so far this year.

Bening’s tour-de-force is as London stage legend Julia Lambert, a grand-dame of the theater and a world-class diva.  Julia is hitched to theater producer/Svengali Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons); a dramatic couple for whom the stirring credo “the theater is the only reality” resonates with comic definition.

Julia is near breakdown levels as her hit play continues to pack in audiences.  As laugh lines creep around her eyes and her star begins to wane around the edges, Julia begs Michael to shutter the play so she can indulge in the luxuries of sleeping in and drinking beer (“As god is my judge I’ll never eat a lettuce leaf again!”). That’s the plan until she meets young and ardent admirer cum gold-digger Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans), with whom she begins a torrid affair.

Hello energy!  Julia is renewed by the boost to her ego and the sexual appetites of her young lover, who naturally tires of her emotional demands and takes up with two-bit starlet Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch), an ambitious wannabe who worships the ground Julia walks on (a wink and a nudge to All About Eve).

Unwilling to play patsy, Julia agrees to let Avice audition for her new comedy, going so far as to encourage the girl with script readings and costume suggestions.  A dropped comment regarding Avice and Michael’s burgeoning “friendship” means Game On. Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned and you know what they say: all is fair in love and the theater.  Julia’s revenge is the sweetest of them all.

There’s nothing not to love about István Szabó’s rare departure from moody epics (Sunshine) and his colorful foray into show business, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novella “Theater”. Except a niggling tendency towards cliché. The tantrums, the country homes, the luxurious period threads and the very English-ness of it all are deliciously and hilariously crafted for maximum payoff.

Julia’s razor-sharp wit and her gift of gab is a glove fit for Bening’s theatrical flair. She’s a veritable sparkler as she craftily steals the show from under the noses of her heaven-sent co-stars, including ghostly mentor Michael Gambon, perennial bachelor buddy Bruce Greenwood and dresser/ready ear Juliet Stevenson. Bravo!