British director Mike Figgis continues his erratic career with “Miss Julie,” a solid, intermittently powerful screen adaptation of August Strindberg’s play about the turbulent, doomed relationship between a noblewoman and her servant in turn-of-the-century Sweden. An intensely intimate drama for two, pic is toplined by a forceful performance from Peter Mullan and a so-so interpretation from Saffron Burrows in the title role. Though it does not subscribe to literary-cinema conventions, this gloomy period piece is likely to draw arthouse patrons who are familiar with the play; it faces a tough time persuading the larger public, including viewers who have embraced bigscreen adaptations of Henry James, Jane Austen and E.M. Forster.
Strindberg wrote his bold, scandalous play, which was initially banned in several countries, in 1888, but Figgis sets his version, co-scripted with Helen Cooper, in 1894. His rendition differs radically from the 1951 film version, one of the first international arthouse hits, helmed by the distinguished Swedish stage and film director Alf Sjoberg (also known as Ingmar Bergman’s mentor — and Garbo’s classmate).
On a large Swedish estate, the nobility lives in feudal splendor, in sharp contrast to the poverty of the peasants and servants. On a hot Midsummer’s Eve, the farmhands and domestics gather outdoors for the traditional festivities. In the large, empty kitchen, the cook, Christine (Maria Doyle Kennedy), awaits the arrival of her footman fiance, Jean (Mullan).
The informal mood is interrupted as soon as Miss Julie (Burrows) invades the kitchen and orders Jean to wear her father’s formal jacket and dance with her. Over the course of a tumultuous and fateful night, Miss Julie and Jean engage in a dynamic, perverse game of role-playing that forces them to drop — and then assume again — the sharp class distinctions between mistress and servant.
Strindberg’s bitter play is essentially a psychological dissection of a beautiful but terribly complicated and repressed woman who’s still influenced by the ideas of her domineering mother. What’s missing from Figgis’ version is a more detailed account of Julie’s childhood (she was the unwanted daughter of a woman who refused to marry the nobleman who wanted her, declaring her intention to be his mistress).
What was great about Sjoberg’s film was its inventive flashback structure, which conveyed the characters’ lives as children, specifically how Jean fantasized about Miss Julie as a boy. Moreover, in lieu of using dissolves or other conventional devices for the changing time scheme, Sjoberg showed in the same frame simultaneously the characters and their haunted memories.
Figgis, by contrast, concentrates on the here and now of the relationship — how it changes radically in the course of the night, sometimes within a matter of seconds and culminates in sexual seduction (borderline rape, by today’s standards), after which Jean demands that Julie steal her father’s money to fund his plan to escape to Italy and become a hotel owner. As the evening progresses, the despondent Julie shows alarming signs of deep depression and an unbalanced state of mind.
While the class warfare may be relevant today, the sexual battle presented here seems outdated, as do some of Strindberg’s misogynistic and misanthropic ideas. It’s worth noting that his sympathy with the underdog is not as clear-cut as it seems. Jean emerges as greedy and hell-bent on improving his lot, consciously using every means he has, including his sex. He exploits Julie’s weakness and vulnerability, continuously humiliating her until he succeeds in pushing her toward self-destruction.
As in all his films, Figgis uses innovative techniques to imbue the material with a visual edge. The restless handheld camera is effective in conveying the shaky reality of the duo. But his decision to use split screen to depict the sex between Julie and Jean, showing them from different angles, doesn’t add much and manages to defuse the severity and fervor of these scenes. The overly elaborate visual treatment of the film as a whole (numerous cuts, closeups and mega-closeups) occasionally works against the claustrophobic intensity of the play.
In the 1951 film, Anita Bjork played the extremely demanding role of Miss Julie to perfection; Burrows’ uneven performance suffers by comparison. Mullan (winner of the Cannes acting prize for “My Name Is Joe”) is more impressive, but doesn’t measure up to Ulf Palme’s earlier illuminating rendition. As the understanding, suffering cook whose presence is very much felt in the background, Kennedy lends competent support.
Tech credits are good across the board, particularly Benoit Delhomme’s lensing.