Director – Rupert Goold
Cast – Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon
There’s very little worth discussing about Judy apart from Renée Zellweger and her (Oscar-nominated) central performance; it’s a film that lives and dies by it. Unfortunately, the most acting can’t always be equated with the best acting.
One could make the same argument about Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance in Joker — both films have an uncommonly heavy dependence on their stars, who also happen to be the front-runners to win Academy Awards. But part of the reason why Phoenix’s performance worked and Zellweger’s doesn’t is that while Phoenix generated empathy for an unlikeable character, Zellweger instead provokes mild annoyance towards someone who was, by most accounts, a reasonably nice woman.
Watch the Judy trailer here
Performances like this don’t allow the viewer to invest in the character organically; performances like this don’t care for consent. They’re violent, in a way. They grab the viewer by the scruff of the neck and yank them close, insisting on forcing a connection where there might not be any.
The writing is to blame, of course. Had Zellweger been given something more substantial to work with, her transformation into Hollywood icon Judy Garland would have been less one note and not as angry. Even when she isn’t speaking, her face appears to be doing contortions; and the less said about a grand musical number the better.
Director Rupert Goold’s film certainly pays attention to the costumes and the makeup and all the superficial stuff, but I wish it would have explored the tragedy of Garland’s terribly short life with equal conviction. Goold takes the most predictable and least imaginative route in telling her story — launching into flashbacks to Garland’s youth at the drop of a hat, and highlighting her victimhood instead of celebrating her resilience.
While Zellweger blankets Garland with thick melancholy, Judy, the film, is as dispassionate as a dry Wikipedia page.
This image released by Roadside Attractions shows Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in a scene from Judy.
Every awards season throws up prestige dramas such as this, stuffed with overdramatic clips that are perfectly suited to be aired during the ceremonies. Tom Hooper has made a career out of directing such films (meow, meow). They’re usually quite ordinary.
Recontexualised as a post-MeToo parable, however, Judy transforms into something more relevant, and despite itself, even frighteningly urgent. Studio head Louis B Mayer’s creepy interactions with a teenage Garland evoke some of those horrible accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behaviour. And in certain scenes, especially one in which her agent suggests Garland visit a doctor, it seems as if Zellweger is channelling some sort of personal experience, in which she, too, was given orders by powerful white men.
Judy isn’t an absolute failure; it’s more of a disappointment, especially when you consider how successful a bunch of recent films have been in addressing some of the same themes. Perhaps watch Stan & Ollie, a moody comedy about the final years of the iconic duo Laurel & Hardy’s career, which somewhat overlapped with Garland’s, incidentally. Or maybe check out The Hero, in which Sam Elliot plays an ageing Western star reliving his glorious past.
Garland was used and discarded by an industry that we all give way too much respect and importance to. She didn’t deserve it. But neither did she deserve a biopic as plain as this.