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Toronto Film Review: ‘Miss Julie’

Liv Ullmann's worshipful but static adaptation of the classic Strindberg play fails to work as a film, despite impressive perfs.

Miss Julie Toronto Film Festival

Scrupulous fidelity to the source material makes Liv Ullmann’s adaptation of “Miss Julie” perfect for theater classes, but also keeps this latest version of Strindberg’s 1888 drama from coming alive onscreen. There’s much to admire in the performances of Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton, embodying a psychosexual triangle that implodes during a few hours’ span, but admiration rather than emotional involvement is the most one feels here. Compared to what remains the work’s filmic gold standard, Alf Sjoberg’s classic 1951 version, this is a glorified performance record of what might have been a fine stage production, but one that has sadly turned rather tedious in the translation. It would probably play better as a prestige tube item; niche theatrical prospects are minor.

As helmer and adapter, Ullmann has taken major liberties that include paring away all minor roles (even most references to them) in order to focus exclusively on the leading character trio, and, for the sake of an English-language cast, transposing the action from late-19th-century rural Sweden to Ireland in the same era. She also adds a brief prologue showing the young Julie, played by Nora McMenamy, as a lonely, motherless child.

At a baron’s country estate, the titular figure (Chastain) is in a state of high nervous excitement. Her father away, the servants are carousing in the barn during the annual Midsummer’s Eve celebration, and Miss Julie is abuzz with frustrated yearning. Heedless of scandal, flush from dancing and drink, she points that hunger at her father’s valet, John (Farrell). Never mind that she does this right under the nose of his pious fiancee, cook Kathleen (Morton).

“You’re playing with fire,” he warns her but, after further insistence, reveals he’s been infatuated with her since boyhood, though the difference in their stations made her seem as remote as the moon. Alternately chummy, desperate and imperious, and not above ordering him to obey highly inappropriate whims (such as kissing her boot), Julie manipulates his inflamed passions until they both lose all control. In the disillusioned aftermath, however, the balance of power shifts, as John proves mercenary and callous toward her new “fallen woman” status. Meanwhile, she weighs her options with rising panic. The ultimate price of their violating all propriety is captured in a striking final overhead image just about the only moment of pure visual interest here.

While the play now seems considerably less naturalistic than it did to audiences originally, Strindberg’s brutal insights into how class, economics, desire and religion impact relations between the sexes retains its potency. But it’s a highly theatrical work, and Ullmann neither underscores that theatricality nor successfully opens up the text as Sjoberg and others have. There are scattered scenes outdoors, and some roaming about the vast yet plain manse (the pic was entirely shot in and around a historic castle). But at least four-fifths of the film’s progress remains stuck in the kitchen, creating an inevitable feel of static garrulousness that a more abstract and/or locationally diversified interpretation might have avoided. Sjoberg’s version is 40 minutes shorter, yet evokes a whole world of everyday life, while Ullmann’s feels stagebound, cut off from any exterior reality.

The three thesps are impressive, with Chastain and Farrell delivering fevered performances that might have been knockouts on the boards, but in this respectfully flat approach feel a bit overscaled you can see their virtuoso technique at work. Benefiting from playing a contrastingly far less mercurial figure, Morton makes a strong imprint, limning without condescension Kathleen’s simple, clear-headed faith and morality.

The score consists of newly recorded classical pieces by Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, etc. Tech/design contributions are solid, though none are allowed to provide the kind of bolder note this plodding treatment could have used.

Toronto Film Review: ‘Miss Julie’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 7, 2014. Running time: <strong>129 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Norway-U.K.-Ireland-France) A Maipo Film, Apocalypse Film Co., Senorita Films and Subotica Films presentation. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Synnove Horsdal, Oliver Dungey, Teun Hilte. Executive producers, Julia Balaeskoul Nusselbeh, Christian Baumard, Aaron Gilbert, Alain Kappauf, John Raymonds. Co-producers, Tristan Orpen Lynch, Aoife O'Sullivan, Rita Dagher.
  • Crew: Directed by Liv Ullmann. Screenplay, Ullmann, from the play by August Strindberg. Camera (color, HD), Mikhail Krichman; editor, Michal Leszczylowski; production designer, Caroline Amies; costume designer, Consolata Boyle; sound, Ronan Hill; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Stefan Henrix; assistant director, Peter Baekkel. (English dialogue)
  • With: Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Nora McMenamy.
  • Music By: