Being Julia

As Shakespeare so cleverly put it, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. Such is the life philosophy of Julia Lambert, one of the greatest actresses on England’s stage. But the enchanting story that unfolds in Being Julia as much about the men and women being players as it is about them being played. Julia (Annette Benning) glides across the room like a train on glass rails, simultaneously flowing and crushing everything beneath her. She barges into the office of theater manager (and husband) Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) dramatically weeping that she is tired. As the lead actress carrying the productions, exhaustion has finally caught up with her…she needs a change.

She is an elegant actress, champion of the 1930’s London stage. So engrained into her is her love of the stage, that she still hears the voice and prompting of her favorite, albeit deceased, director Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon). Her day-to-day life is one grand drama. Her friends and colleagues indulge her obsessive behavior, choosing instead to bask in the more genuine glow of her talent and friendship. Still, even they can see she’s losing steam quickly.

Enter one charmingly innocent American accountant, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans). His role as the theater’s newest bookkeeper quickly changes to that of on-the-side lover, giving Julia the new burst of youth and vigor she needs to carry on. Tom has plans of his own though, scheming to help his actress girlfriend aspire to supplant Julia as the next great London actress. Julia finds herself being slowly upstaged, and struggles to redefine herself in a world where the lighting is harsh and unforgiving.

Being Julia is a fantastic feast for the senses, full of beautiful sets and costumes, elegant but real language, rich and witty dialogue and a soundtrack that leaves you feeling like you’ve really been to the 1930’s. The incredible cast never falters for a second. Michael Gambon’s presence as the post-mortem Jimmie Langton is magically haunting. The supporting cast, in particular Tom Sturridge, who plays Julia’s son Roger, is just as brilliant and robust as the leading cast. Another bright spot falls on Juliet Stevenson. Her chemistry with Bening as Julia’s personal assistant makes for pure magic during those rare moments when Julia isn’t acting. Speaking of Annette Bening, she has achieved her greatest performance ever in Julia, leaving me wondering ‘who the heck is Hilary Swank?’

To top it all off, the second half of Being Julia is cunningly original with an ending that renews my faith in the clever plot twist. If the ending to The Usual Suspects is a pleasurable punch to the stomach, Being Julia’s finale is an equally gratifying but graceful cup of cold water to the face. It’s a smart and entertaining film and a shame that it couldn’t have enjoyed a wider release. The saddest part about this DVD is that there is so much more that could be explored about the film that will likely never be touched. With a miserable turn out at the box-office and not much hope of massive DVD sales, there’s little to no chance Being Julia will ever be revisited for a well deserved Collector’s Edition. As such, this release is all we’re likely to get, but it’s not too shabby at that.

The deleted scenes are a one-click play-through of some fine moments that have no right being out of the film. I’m beginning to believe that deleted scenes are removed these days purely to “run in the time allotted”. I always thought that was a stunt they only pulled when adapting for television. Alas, the deleted scenes here are gems and a must watch.

Director István Szabó sits down with Bening and Irons for a pleasant commentary that reminds me of a rather droll tea on a warm, lazy English afternoon. Everyone is very pleasant and informative. There are nice lulls in the conversation and you feel let in on some very silly inside jokes. Overall it’s a very simple experience and not nearly as interesting as I would have hoped. The characters and their interactions are so rich in the film that it would have been nice to hear the actors reflect much more on things of that nature.

Even more disappointing is the laughable excuse for a making-of featurette. I say laughable only because the film is so lush with it’s characters, costumes and sets that a twenty-minute how-we-did-it quickie hardly does it justice. These actors and designers have revived the thirties in a beautiful way, but the feature barely scratches the surface.

There is so much to love and enjoy in the film, but so little of it is embraced in the bonus features. Nevertheless, it’s a handsome package and well worth indulging in from start to final curtain call.