×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: Renée Zellweger in ‘Judy’

Renée Zellweger gives her all — and then some — in a portrait of the showbiz icon's final year that rightly prioritizes raw feeling over slavish verisimilitude.

Director:
Rupert Goold
With:
Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon
Release Date:
Sep 27, 2019

Rated PG-13  Running time: 117 MIN.

Official Site: http://roadsideattractions.com/filmography/judy/

If it’s taken so long for a bigscreen biopic of Judy Garland to come to fruition, perhaps it’s because the lady herself warned off any attempts with one of her most famous quotes: “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” It is not, admittedly, a saying that has deterred Hollywood from its ongoing fascination with famous people playing other famous people, though it’s a practice that yields more successful Oscar campaigns than for-the-ages performances: Prosthetically enhanced impersonation, for the most part, isn’t a repeatedly dazzling trick. Yet director Rupert Goold and resurgent star Renée Zellweger have pulled off something unusual and affecting in “Judy”: a biographical portrait in which performer and subject meet halfway, illuminating something of each other in the process.

Set in the final year before Garland’s death in 1969, “Judy” covers the shambolic London concert residency that was never supposed to be her last hurrah. Zellweger offers an all-singing, all-dancing, all-collapsing performance of the star at her lowest physical and psychological ebb: It’s gutsy, can’t-look-away work, yet it might not enthrall those who evaluate biopic turns as Olympian feats of technical mimicry. With the help of some expert makeup, hairstyling and costuming, her inhabitation of Garland is persuasive without being exhaustive; it’s a very different feat from the eerie, brilliant channeling that Judy Davis achieved to Emmy-winning effect in the 2003 miniseries “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”

That’s no bad thing. If it feels as if there’s as much of Zellweger — her distinctive, endearing expressions and mannerisms — in this study as there is of Garland, it’s because “Judy” appears to seek authenticity through empathy rather than mere imitation. Three years after “Bridget Jones’ Baby” ended Zellweger’s six-year acting hiatus, “Judy” plays as one star working through the ups and downs of her own Hollywood story via another’s. And while Goold’s film is a star vehicle of the most devoted and generous variety, first-time feature scribe Tom Edge’s lucid, thoughtful screenplay holds up its end of the bargain. Steering away from lurid fallen-angel cliché, it recontextualizes Garland’s story for a post-#MeToo audience mindful of women abused and disempowered by the industry.

Popular on Variety

“I used to have ambition. I found it gave me the most terrible headache,” Garland drolly notes at the outset of the film, at a point where any headache of hers had a more obvious, self-inflicted cause. “Judy” introduces its heroine in full trainwreck mode, looking older and frailer than her 46 years: Broke, substance-addled and all but unemployable, she’s barred from the latest of the swanky Los Angeles hotels that serve as her only home, and forced to leave her young children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), with her unforgiving ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).

When an invitation comes from London theater impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to perform a nightly five-week engagement at his glitzy Talk of the Town nightclub, she has no choice but to take it. (“They’re crazy for you in London,” her agent brightly reminds her. “That’s because the English are insane,” Garland spits back.) Yet it’s not long before the wheels come off across the pond, too: Eschewing rehearsals, turning up late and drunk to her own shows, and fixating mostly on her new, much younger lover Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), Garland gradually tests the polite goodwill of Delfont and her young, bright-eyed minder Rosalyn (“Wild Rose” star Jessie Buckley, who’d make a fine young Garland herself) to breaking point.

Working from Peter Quilter’s Tony-nominated stage play “End of the Rainbow,” Edge and Goold’s smartest structural ploy is the insertion of multiple cannily timed flashbacks to the formative days of the teenage Garland (Darci Shaw, excellent) on the MGM lot. With each rewind, the extent to which the girl’s studio masters eventually seized control of her time, mind and body — whether putting her on diet pills or dictating her romances — are shown in ways from which the battered fortysomething trouper has never quite freed herself. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, in Hollywood, it takes one to ruin her: “Judy” makes the point with mounting, acute sadness.

Which is not to say the film is a slab of tabloid miserablism, either. Acclaimed stage director Goold, a far better fit for this material than he was for his 2015 debut “True Story,” ensures flashes of celebratory joy and theatrical razzle-dazzle, too. There are sustained numbers where Garland’s one-of-a-kind stage presence suddenly catches fire, through a glittering synthesis of Ole Bratt Birkeland’s rich, gold-flecked lensing, Jany Temime’s dead-on costumes and, of course, Zellweger’s sheer, defiant moxie. The star is, needless to say, no vocal match for prime Garland; neither, however, was end-of-the-line Garland, and “Judy’s” most moving interludes see her trying to find other ways to make up the difference and connect with her public.

A climactic performance of “Over the Rainbow” is superbly played by Zellweger as part stream-of-consciousness confessional, part return-to-innocence reset; rarely since its original “Wizard of Oz” incarnation has the old chestnut been so stirringly used on screen. Even around the time she was hoofing to Oscar-nominated effect in “Chicago” — and sure enough, you can draw a jagged line from the stage-hungry striver Zellweger played there to her spotlight-trained, love-starved Garland — it would have been near-impossible to imagine the actress in this role. Nearly two decades later, the casting makes bittersweet sense: A onetime American sweetheart who relinquished the burdensome title, she plays Garland, with palpable affection and feeling, as one who’s been over the rainbow and back again.

Film Review: Renée Zellweger in 'Judy'

Reviewed at 20th Century Fox screening room, London, June 27, 2019. (In Telluride, Toronto film festivals.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 117 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Roadside Attractions (in U.S.) release of a Pathé, BBC Films, Ingenious Media presentation of a Calamity Films production. (Int'l sales: Pathe, London.) Producer: David Livingstone. Executive producers: Cameron McCracken, Rose Garnett, Andrea Scarso, Laurence Myers, Lee Dean, Aaron Levene, Charles Diamond, Ellis Goodman, Hillary Williams.

Crew: Director: Rupert Goold. Screenplay: Tom Edge, adapted from the stageplay "End of the Rainbow" by Peter Quilter. Camera (color): Ole Bratt Birkeland. Editor: Melanie Oliver. Music: Gabriel Yared.

With: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Darci Shaw, Bella Ramsey, Royce Pierreson, Tim Ahern, John Dagleish, Gemma-Leah Devereux, Fenella Woolgar, Andy Nyman, Phil Dunster.

More Film

  • UTA Sundance

    UTA Marketing Ups Sundance Game With Private Residence, Programming

    Talent agency hospitality is a mainstay at the Sundance film Festival, be it in swanky lounges on Park City’s Main Street or private chalets in nearby Deer Valley. United Talent Agency, whose talent roster and independent film group always come in force each year, typically throws a brunch for friends and press — but will [...]

  • Joel Silver

    Silver Pictures Settles with Family of Assistant Who Died on Bora Bora Trip

    Silver Pictures has reached a confidential settlement with the family of Carmel Musgrove, the assistant to Joel Silver who was found dead in a Bora Bora lagoon in 2015. Musgrove’s family filed a wrongful death suit in 2017, alleging that she had been overworked and furnished with drugs and alcohol during the trip. The family [...]

  • David O. Russell

    David O. Russell Looks at 'Three Kings' 20 Years Later

    When David O. Russell made “Three Kings” in 1999, it was one of the most definitive films on the Gulf War. At the time, the director had worked on shorts “Hairway to the Stars” and “Bingo Inferno: A Parody on American Obsessions.” He had also worked on features “Spanking the Monkey” and “Flirting with Disaster.” [...]

  • Metoo Sundance The Glorias Zola On

    #MeToo Issues Continue to Make an Impact on Sundance Films

    If there were any doubts that the impact of sexual-harassment exposés­­ and backlash against them had died down, Oprah Winfrey put them to rest when she withdrew her name (and Apple’s distribution) from “On The Record,” a film about allegations against music execs Russell Simmons and L.A. Reid — just two weeks before its Sundance Film Festival premiere. Variety reached out to Winfrey and the [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein arrives at a Manhattan

    Harvey Weinstein's Request to Move Trial Out of NYC Is Denied (Again)

    An appeals court denied the second request from Harvey Weinstein’s legal team to move his trial out of New York City on Tuesday. Weinstein’s attorneys asked the Appellate Division last week to move the trial to Albany or Suffolk County, arguing it is impossible for him to get a fair trial due to the “carnival-like [...]

  • Adrian Rossi appears in Summer White

    Visit Films to Sell Sundance Player ‘Summer White’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    New York-based sales company Visit Films has acquired worldwide rights for Mexican feature “Summer White,” world premiering in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition on Sunday Jan. 26. Visit will also be screening the film at Berlinale’s European Film, Market. Now a key North American sales company for Latin American films, Visit’s catalog includes other major [...]

  • Avengers Endgame

    4DX High-Tech Cinemas Break Box Office Records in 2019

    CJ 4DPLEX, the company behind multi-sensory 4DX cinema technology, has announced that it had a record-breaking 2019, grossing more than £246 million ($320 million) for 4DX worldwide. It was the best year yet for the groundbreaking format, marking a 12% increase from 2018’s record $286 million. The uptick is partly credited to booming revenues in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content