In “Julie Walking Home,” accomplished Polish helmer Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa,” “The Secret Garden”) views a Canadian woman’s personal and family trials through the lens of lay mysticism, rather like a popularized version of a Krzysztof Kieslowski film. The story of housewife Julie’s life-changing encounter with a Russian faith healer who cures her son and falls in love with her has some fascinating elements and some very strong scenes, but requires a certain curiosity and willingness to believe in miracles to work. The disappointing thing is that “Julie” first hints at mysteries lying below life’s surface, then fails completely to come to grips with them, preferring to follow the heroine’s personal and far less interesting drama. Pic is definitely a mixed bag: its unusual subject should attract regular filmgoers, though many of them could be put off by the arty ending.
In a dynamic opener shot at top speed with a handheld camera, two stretchers are raced into the emergency room of a poor hospital. Later it becomes clear that we are in Russia some 30 years ago. In the bedlam, a doctor lifts another patient (a small boy) and stands him on top of a man screaming in agony. The man is instantly quieted. Next, the strange-looking boy wanders into the hospital morgue and puts his hands on a dead woman, trying to bring her back to life.
Cut to present-day Canada, where pretty Julie (Miranda Otto) is skiing with her 8-year-old twins Nick (Ryan Smith) and Nicole (Bianca Crudo.) The little boy collapses for no reason, suggesting something bad is about to happen. And it does: returning home unexpectedly, Julie finds her mate Henry (William Fichtner) in bed with another woman. Her reaction is swift and uncompromising, leaving him no second chance.
Played hard and fast, the family drama is involving, but is soon overshadowed by worse. Nick collapses again and is diagnosed with a tumor. Allergic to chemotherapy, he seems doomed when Julie, fiercely fighting scientific-minded Henry, decides to take him to Poland to the great Russian healer Alexei Ormow (Lothaire Bluteau.) There, holding her dying son, she stands in the rain in an immense line of sick people, waiting for a miracle.
Once again Holland catches viewers up in the new drama of saving the boy’s life. Ormow not only heals him completely, he falls for Julie, who timidly returns his feelings.
After following him around Poland (Nick requires repeated treatments), Julie leaves for home and Henry and he for India, but it is not the last time they will meet. One day while Julie is conveniently alone (Henry has left with the kids to give her some time to think), Alexei turns up on her doorstep. But, film warns, both will pay a heavy price for infringing on some obscure cosmic taboo (or is it just fidelity that’s at stake?) Film’s ending is arbitrary and puzzling, leaving open questions about the consequences of betrayal, guilt and responsibility.
In the main role, Otto (whose sunny face appears in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) goes from tyrannical moral uprightness to selfless maternal devotion with irritating speed. Her Polish Catholic background in the film is well used against cliche (she refuses to go to church or even to get married), while Fitchner’s skeptical Jewish scientist stresses the non-denominational nature of the film’s theme. Bluteau (Jesus in “Jesus of Montreal”) is finely cast as the healer, whose supernatural powers and innocence clash devastatingly with his yearning to be a mortal man.
Cinematographer Jacek Petrycki’s whipping handheld camera has an exciting boldness that can be quite riveting, particularly effective in tandem with Anton Gross’ racy score. The intelligent music, never banal, pulls more than one scene back from the edge of the ridiculous.