Being Julia

(2004) *** R
104 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Cast: Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Bruce Greenwood, Miriam Margolyes, Juliet Stevenson.

István Szabó's film Being Julia is so smitten with its leading lady--Julia Lambert--and the actress playing her, Annette Bening, that most of the other characters begin to look like those kneeling chorus boys in an old-time production number, courtiers in service of a drama queen. Ronald Harwood's screenplay, based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel Theater, may be paper-thin, but it's equally weightless, which makes Being Julia a rare--if somewhat guilty--pleasure.

Despite being the toast of 1938 London, Julia Lambert is feeling her fortysomething years and dreading the further decline of her career--marked by the ignominy of faintly ridiculous women's roles written by men--and marriage to Jeremy Irons's fuddy-duddy manager-director. Julia laments, "Everything's so tedious. I just want something to happen," but her son Roger (Thomas Sturridge) has her number, noting her unrestrained penchant for drama and telling her, "I don't think you exist." The two tender scenes Harwood (The Dresser, The Pianist) pens for mother and son are among the picture's finest.

Indeed, Julia acts on and off the stage, pretending to be satisfied with an increasingly listless existence. She pines for platonic friend Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood), but eventually succumbs to a giddy American lad (Shaun Evans) for an inevitably disasterous affair. "An older woman with a younger man? A farce, of course," says Charles to Julia's plot summary of her own life. A series of unromantic entanglements leaves Julia a woman scorned, and a little embarrassed by her weakness and recklessness, but she comforts herself with encouraging visions of her late drama coach (the nimble Michael Gambon).

But Being Julia is not the stodgy costume drama it may appear to be, despite its parade of top talent (including Juliet Stevenson, Miriam Margolyes, and Rosemary Harris); Szabó is working in the Lubitsch mode and aiming for a well-made play. Harwood literally sets the stage for a delightful climax in which Julia makes a play for her moment and her life. Bening's interpretation of Julia is glorious: hers is a character with heroic perspective on her own mistakes and a self-possessed determination to reclaim her life. To Bening's triumph, the audience can only love Julia, warts and all, by picture's end.

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