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« Yes No Maybe So: Serena | Main | TIFF: The New Girlfriend »
Sunday
Sep142014

TIFF: Miss Julie or, Acting: The Movie! 

The 2014 edition of TIFF ends tonight and so will Nathaniel's review coverage with Still Alice. Wrap-ups and Oscar updates coming shortly thereafter. Now Liv Ullman's Miss Julie... 

"Kiss my shoe!" Colin Farrell reenacts critical reaction to Chastain's debut film year

This review contains 126 year-old spoilers if you’re not familiar with August Strindbergh’s one act play, which has been adapted to film frequently. The play is about the bored, lonely, and loveless daughter of a Baron, Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) who enjoys toying with the servants, especially with John her father's valet (Colin Farrell). She flirts shamelessly even in front of his fiancé the cook (Samantha Morton) ordering him to perform sometimes demeaning and not very valet-like duties, like kissing her shoe or bringing her flowers. The story takes place in a single night in which the valet and the lady of the house will consummate their extremely uncomfortable and scandalous attraction with incredibly disastrous results... especially for Miss Julie. If 19th century Swedish country estates had been unionized John surely would have told her what wasn't in his job description. 'Not that. Not that. Definitely not that. You're playing with fire, Miss Julie!'

We understand Miss Julie's maddening hypocrisies straightaway as, when the story begins, she's already ordered the cook to feed her dog "Diana" an abortive dinner since the naughty girl has had sex with the gate keeper's mongrel dog. Foreshadowing 101 anyone? Diana is played by an adorable pug so we'll ignore, for Jess's dignity, that the play indicates that the dog ought to resemble Miss Julie! The pug laps down the meal hungrily and then proceeds to whimper through the entire first scene. This too proves foreshadowing, as yours truly began to do the same. If only Samantha Morton could have scooped me up, as she mercifully does with the confused pup, to carry me out of the screening room! 

more...

Diana, the pug. "A whore is a whore!"

Onstage Miss Julie can be performed in well under two hours. Most feature versions, excluding silent films, from the earliest in 1951 (Swedish) to the most recent previous adaptation in 2013 (also Swedish) last about 90 minutes. Strangely this new Liv Ulllman film takes 129 minutes to tell the story. I can't imagine why this is since I can only immediately identify two scenes of padding, those unnecessary literalizing bookends (not from the play), wherein we see Miss Julie as a young girl visits the set of Cries and Whispers to kneel prostrate over her bed and cry for her dead mother and Miss Julie's actual suicide, which is only suggested to occur directly after the play ends after the hopefully still living actress -- you never know, it's a tough part! -- has taken her last bow. 

"Don't speak harshly to me!" Sorry, Jess. I STILL LOVE YOU.Visually, this new version is so straightforward that the most memorable images come from those colorful literal bookends. The rest of the imagery amounts to a series of two and three shots, few of them interesting in their configurations of the trio of characters, mixed with abundant unbroken closeups (of which I am normally a huge fan) of the three stars acting their heads off. Call it Acting: The Movie! since that’s what it amounts to. Singular short clips of any of these performances could conceivably look impressive out of context but as a two hour drama, which all takes place over the course of one night, the modulation is strangely off in that there barely is any. This is altogether confusing since the film is directed by one of the all time great screen actors Liv Ullman, and no one with any sense would call Jessica Chastain, Samantha Morton, or Colin Farrell amateur thespians. But here we have it. Though little moments in the performances work, and the actors aren't at all lazy about their work, it's all just too intense and hysterical too quickly when it needs to build towards the break-downs, escape plans, and death wishes.

In the final section, the wee hours of the morning after this crazy sleepless night, Miss Julie’s voice suddenly (and understandably) becomes hoarse which would be a nice touch but why does it happen in the middle of a scene? Were different days of shooting spliced together? More troubling are the weirdly anachronistic line readings that flare up occasionally in all three performances.

But then anachronisms are often a problem when old texts aren't rethought or transposed cleverly to new time periods and settings. Strindberg's classic, originally meant to symbolize Darwinism and the death of the aristocracy, is difficult to take now in this new aristocratic age of the 1% and the result is that some of this symbolism slips away and leaves quite a void behind. What we're left with without that historical economic context with its societal mores is a misogynistic fable in which a woman having sex beneath her class and before she's married means that she'd be better off dead.

Oh great, now she's RUINED!

The actors might have conceivably rescued this movie from its misguided conception, but it’s a very strangely acted movie, all declamatory and totally exhausting. But there's no mistaking that it's ACTED! Even the parakeet overdoes it in her death scene - blame the animatronic double if you must. (No animals were harmed in the making of this picture, I checked in the credits.) The truest moment then is a long closeup of Jessica Chastain post-nervous breakdown wherein her neck seems barely able to support her head, having acted it off, and says... 

I'm so tired."

The most unfortunate take away is that the most all around successful performance comes from Diana the pug, the only actor who remembers to just "be" her character rather than acting it. C-

 

previously at TIFF

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Reader Comments (26)

Ouch. Ouch indeed.

I read reviews that thoroughly praised Liv Ullman's actorly direction and Jessica's performance because of it. I was happy to read your take, so I know what to expect. This looks like scenery chewing done by pros! Something I don't mind every once in a while.

Or is it just plain bad?

P.S. I keep waiting for the next great performance by Colin Farrell. People in Hollywood other than HFPA saw IN BRUGES, right?

P.S.2 - Poor Samantha Morton. She and Laura Dern must meet and pair up in something. Acting! The Movie 2: Character Actors Finally Get Her Due. It's depressing, you guys. I know they can't all get jobs but... meanwhile you get JLaw playing an older person three times (Hustle, Silver Linings and the new O Russell). And you get Kristen Stewart playing off Julianne Moore AND Juliette Binoche in the same year... The world is not fair.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

Personally, I loved Miss Julie (I saw it on Friday). Yes, there was some major scenery chewing, and yes, there were moments of "I AM ACTING RIGHT NOW! WATCH ME ACT!", but I still loved it. I loved Ullman's choice of using mostly medium and close-up shots, and keeping it mostly in the kitchen (as opposed to what I've heard has been done by other adaptations which have chosen to open up the story), as I felt it helped to really build tension and make you feel uncomfortable (which I felt was the point, rather than an unfortunate side effect). Overall, while watching it, I found myself on occasion tense, moved, frightened, and impressed by those involved, and I am of the belief that those reactions were intended. No, it may not maintain the naturalistic feel that Strindbergh may have had in mind when writing the play, and it may have traded that for what, on occasion, feels very much like pure histrionics. But I felt it worked incredibly well. Though there were few clearly visually interesting shots, I definitely never found it visually uninteresting. I totally see where you're coming from (and it felt like I liked it more than most of the other people in the theatre with me), but I felt like the amazing performances all around were more than enough to keep me captivated throughout, and make me overlook some of its flaws.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Haha. You didn't like this at all. Good to know because I liked the trailer and might've saw it otherwise.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Let's talk about the other Miss Julie, Miss Julie Anne Smith.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

Colin Farrell is not an actor. He is a formally hot guy who attempts to act. And all his effort is visible. I will have the misfortune of having to endure him for the new Lanthimos movie The Lobster.

Chastain made the choice for this project because it is good on paper. Liv Ullmann directs you in a movie. You take it. The same for Coriolanus for the chance to work with Ralph Fiennes behind the camera.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

@3rtful I don't think Nat's review requires a defense of Chastain's choices; it's clear why she did it and it doesn't diminish the fact that this was a misfire.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

Also, whatever nonsense you meant, it's preposterous to the point of delusion to say Colin Farrell is not an actor. You sound like Shia Labeouf insisting he's not famous.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

Nat somethings has me thinking you were right the A most violent year will be the turn we all pee our pants for,hopefully.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

I knew it! They keep doing versions of this play with no success at all. Colin Farrell is totally wrong for the part and Chastain is way too obsessed with her Oscar. Be patient, girl!

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Disappointing, though not unexpected since the trailer looked terrible.

I'm actually kind of worried that the new Macbeth will be full of declaiming as well. We haven't seen footage, but a few sources said there was much scenery chewing.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Loved reading this. I enjoy reviews from good writers be they positive, negative or everywhere in between.

I'll still see it. Personally, I like all three actors and will sit through bad films to watch them, especially classics. I do wish Morton in particular could find more good roles, she is wonderful to watch. And the still above (the RUINED shot) is pretty greatly framed.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Peggy Sue: Chastain is in her late 30's. Her first nomination in Lead Actress she was defeated by an overrated 22 year old. She has every reason in the world to be anxious and nervous at her prospects. Do you need reminding that they denied Sigourney Weaver, Debra Winger, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Glenn Close?

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Coriolanus was a great movie (with botched distribution). I'm not sure why anyone would feel the need to rush to Chastain's defense on her choice to appear in it.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Kate,

It's Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. They could be sitting in an empty set playing chess and I'd still be into it.

Suzanne,

I don't get the Coriolanus hate either. That project looked all kinds of right. That Vanessa freakin' Redgrave couldn't get an Oscar win from that is still ATROCIOUS to me, especially since the winner (an actress that I love) was so mediocre that year.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Sorry Jay, but Redgrave will never win another Oscar and it has nothing to do with her performances. She is one of my favorite actresses and I will tune in to whatever she does but she crossed a line that many will never forgive her for.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Henry, you're talking about the zionist mentions in her acceptance speech?

I hope the Academy isn't that childish, because if something a winner says offends them, I can probably kiss Cate Blanchett's third Oscar goodbye then?

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Rubbish they nommed her after that speach in 84 and 92.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

Nominations come from a smaller group than the final voting.

It's more than just the Zionist mention. The Oscars are not intended to be political. It was considered rude to the audience and the academy to speak of anything other than the film. If you talk politics, it needs to refer to the film you won for and that topic only and you need to be diplomatic at that.

I'm not saying she isn't worthy, just that it won't happen because the topic is too close to the heart of so many in Hollywood. It was a mistake to say anything on her part.

Blancett did not damage herself with her support of Woody as a director (which is all I can think you are possibly referring too). And while I recognize that there are people who are violently anti-Woody, he is not a religion, not a country and not a left field topic for her to refer too. She certainly wasn't booed like Redgrave. No one is protesting her appearance on stage anywhere or political parties threatening to cut off funding to orchestras if she appears with them. No one is saying Cate can't play this or that role because of her political position. The backlash against Redgrave did serious damage to her career. If anything Blancett came out looking golden. The Zionist remark will be a negative foot note in Redgrave's bio forever. Cate's appreciation of Woody is on a completely different level and her deft handling of the situation will be held as a good thing.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Henry, I'm refering to the whole 'Perhaps those of us in the industry that are still foolishly clinging that female films are niche experiences; they're not, audiences wanna see them and in fact they earn money. THE WORLD IS ROUND PEOPLE'.

I thought she sidestepped the Woody Allen scandal in a very gracious manner and the mention in her Oscar speech was apt and short. Very classy.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

"Colin Farrell is not an actor. He is a formally hot guy who attempts to act."

Idiotic words coming from a troll who probably has never seen Cassandra's Dream and The Way Back.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

I don't agree that Colin Farrell can't act, but I wouldn't use Cassandra's Dream as a counterargument.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDrew

I love Colin Farrell. I need that to be known again. I love all three of these actors. But really really disliked this movie.

September 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Respect to Nate who can still be objective about actors he loves. Hey everyone makes mistakes and it devalorizes the good work if you don t criticize the bad work. I think Farrell is in general Ok but needs to mature way more in terms of acting. Too many excesses.

September 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

I am surprised to hear Samantha Morton was overacting. I mean, she's normally so contained.Even in Elizabeth: The Golden Age she's understated. I always think of her as a less is more type of actress.

September 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

It's a poorly written review Nathaniel, and this is why I'll judge for the film when I see it.

September 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPI

The movie did seem too long. I thought Morton and Farrell were wonderful in this film. But after sitting through this and seeing two other productions of Miss Julie on stage, I've decided I just don't like this play at all.

The highlight for me was during the Q&A. Liv Ullmann and Jessica Chastain looked directly at me when I asked my question. I never expected that.

September 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaveylow

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