Theatrical diva who mixes the melodrama of her on- and offstage lives at will, Julia Lambert is by nature a larger-than-life figure, and Annette Bening has fun running the vast gamut of her emotions, be they authentic or manufactured. But Istvan Szabo's new film is a minor affair. Offers enough passable amusement to forge an OK career on the specialized circuit.

If anyone ever took literally Shakespeare’s dictum that all the world’s a stage, it’s the title character in “Being Julia.” A theatrical diva who mixes the melodrama of her on- and offstage lives at will, Julia Lambert is by nature a larger-than-life figure, and Annette Bening has fun running the vast gamut of her emotions, be they authentic or manufactured. But Istvan Szabo’s new film, like the W. Somerset Maugham novel upon which it’s based, is a minor affair, a confection based on dalliances and the way a set of sophisticated theater people handle them, that lacks true distinction. Sony Pictures Classics release, which opens the Toronto Film Festival today, offers the star power and enough passable amusement to forge an OK career on the specialized circuit.

Working in a much lighter vein than usual, Szabo has said he studied the films of Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder in preparation for this picture. Unfortunately, “Being Julia” has little to do with the specifically Viennese strain of wise and winkingly cynical romantic comedy perfected by those two masters of the sexual charade and nearly everything to do with the world of pre-war London theater. This is a film that, above all else, needed to be steeped in Britishness, in the very particular mores and manners of the time; as a Canadian production mostly shot in Budapest by a Hungarian director and an American star and a number of Canuck thesps, this just doesn’t happen. The deficiencies may be intangible, but they deprive film of the solid footing it requires.

In 1938 London (Maugham’s novel was published the year before), Julia Lambert (Bening) is queen of the West End, starring in her umpteenth hit play and happily married, “more or less,” to her producer and good-looking former matinee idol Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons). But at 45, she’s on the verge of a breakdown as she faces what looks to her like the end of the road, personally and professionally. Irrationally, she asks her husband to shutter the play, even though it’s still selling out.

Courteously, the couple invites to lunch an American in his early 20s, Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), who’s been brought in to work for the theater’s accountants (character is English in the novel). Good-looking and a fawning fan of Julia’s, even if quite green in this world of jaded theater types, Tom persistently pursues the star, to the point that she agrees to meet him for tea at his humble flat.

Sensitive to being old enough to be Tom’s mother, but having just been dumped by her aristocratic lover (Bruce Greenwood) and hungry for a revitalizing tumble, Julia gets what she’s looking for from the hunky lad. Finding her performances suddenly re-energized, Julia decides to stay on in the play after all and also starts showering Tom with gifts and paying for their social outings.

The emotional crosscurrents become more complicated during a summer in the country. Julia comes up with a convenient excuse for inviting Tom to the house, as her son Roger (Thomas Sturridge) will be down from school and can keep Tom company. But Julia is vexed when the two boys hit it off and start going out at night to meet girls, and she becomes downright distraught upon realizing Tom is bedding blond aspiring actress Avice Crighton (Lucy Punch), who hopes to use the connection to win an audition with Michael.

Story’s second half is occupied with Julia’s struggling with her trauma and devising an elaborate scheme to turn the tables on gold-digger Tom, avaricious Avice and even Michael, who has started his own affair with the minor-league predecessor of Eve Harrington.

In a nice device of Ronald Harwood’s proficient if uninspired screenplay, Julia all along receives stern and mature advice from her long-dead theatrical mentor and director, Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon), the only person she really trusts. With his ghostly encouragement, Julia manipulates Avice’s public humiliation onstage in a climactic scene that Bening puts over in grand style and makes into the picture’s highlight.

This is fortunate, as it sends the audience out in a good mood, which is capped by the grace note of a quiet, satisfying ending. But the majority of the seriocomic doings, while superficially diverting, provide neither indelible wit nor the gravitas of a genuinely meaningful comedy of manners (see Oscar Wilde), leaving a relatively wispy impression in is wake.

As an actress “of a certain age” who fears the future but whose reserve of tricks and ego gives her an advantage over even a sexy newcomer, the red-tressed Bening gives a crafty, entertaining performance charged with emotion of deliberately varying degrees of truthfulness. She smiles and makes nice more than another actress might in the part, but delivers the dramatic goods when it counts.

Irons is smoothly engaging as a nicer, less complicated guy than he usually plays; Evans, a British thesp, registers just modestly as the social-climbing Yank; and good color is provided by Gambon, Juliet Stevenson as Julia’s assistant and Miriam Margolyes as Michael’s nosy business partner. Most arresting impression made by a supporting player comes from Sturridge, as a poised, mature and aware son anyone would be proud of.

Tech credits are fine, with Mychael Danna’s score providing very good support.

Being Julia

Canada-U.K.-Hungary

Production

A Sony Classics Pictures release (in U.S.) of a Serendipity Point Films presentation, in association with First Choice Films, Astral Media, Telefilm Canada, Corus Entertainment, Myriad Pictures, ISL Films, Hogarth Prods., Sony Pictures Classics, of a Robert Lantos production. Produced by Lantos. Executive producers, Mark Milln, Marion Pilowsky, Donald A. Starr, Daniel J.B. Taylor. Co-producers, Julia Rosenberg, Mark Musselman, Sandra Cunningham, Lajos Ovari. Directed by Istvan Szabo. Screenplay, Ronald Harwood, based on the novel "Theater" by W. Somerset Maugham.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Lajos Koltai; editor, Susan Shipton; music, Mychael Danna; music supervisor, Liz Gallacher; production designer, Luciana Arrighi; supervising art director, Paul Ghirardani; costume designer, John Bloomfield; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), Simon Kaye; assistant director, Guy Travers; casting, Celestia Fox, John Buchan. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 3, 2004. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- opening night; Vancouver Film Festival.) Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Julia Lambert - Annette Bening Michael Gosselyn - Jeremy Irons Lord Charles - Bruce Greenwood Dolly de Vries - Miriam Margolyes Evie - Juliet Stevenson Tom Fennel - Shaun Evans Avice Crichton - Lucy Punch Walter Gibbs - Maury Chaykin Grace Dexter - Sheila McCarthy Jimmie Langton - Michael Gambon Archie Dexter - Leigh Lawson Mrs. Lambert - Rosemary Harris Aunt Carrie - Rita Tushingham Roger Gosselyn - Thomas Sturridge
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