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Sony Picture Classics presents
Being Julia (2004)

Jimmie: Your only reality is the theatre. Anything else, the outside world—what civilians call the real world—is nothing but fantasy. And I bloody well won't let you forget it.
Julia: Rubbish.

- Michael Gambon, Annette Bening

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: March 24, 2005

Stars: Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Bruce Greenwood
Other Stars: Miriam Margolyes, Juliet Stevenson, Shaun Evans, Lucy Punch, Maury Chaykin, Sheila McCarthy, Michael Gambon, Rosemary Harris, Rita Tushingham
Director: István Szabó

MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality
Run Time: 01h:44m:02s
Release Date: March 22, 2005
UPC: 043396091740
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- BAB+ C+

DVD Review

Although the writings of W. Somerset Maugham span a wide range of subjects and embrace numerous genres, Hollywood has always gravitated toward the author's dark side. Somber works such as Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge, The Letter, The Painted Veil, and Rain examine complex human relationships and how passion, obsession, and societal influences both mold and destroy them. Yet moviegoers who know Maugham exclusively from these classics might be surprised to discover the esteemed novelist also had a lighter side, and his comic stories drip with acid English wit. They also benefit from his remarkable ability to construct multi-faceted characters with an unquenchable zest for life.

Being Julia is just such a story. Based on Maugham's novella, Theatre, the film opens with mercurial British stage star Julia Lambert (Annette Bening) battling a serious case of ennui. Bored by her long-running hit play, eccentric society friends, and passionless marriage to the architect of her career, director Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), Julia seeks something fresh and just a tad illicit to jumpstart her emotions. And she finds it in Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), an American admirer half her age. Tom aggressively pursues Julia, and she soon succumbs to his Midwestern charm, embarking on a reckless affair that jolts her out of her funk.

Like many divas, however, Julia feels more comfortable on stage than off, and has trouble dealing with the unpredictability of real life. Tom, whose motives become suspect, refuses to play by her stringent rules, and as he begins to pull away, Julia tries desperately to hang on to him. But just as she's about to lose her grip and slip into despair, Julia conjures up her actress persona, and begins manipulating lives and orchestrating events with consummate skill. And in the process, she discovers that "being Julia Lambert" is by far her favorite and most challenging role.

Parallels between Julia and another cinematic grande dame, Margo Channing of All About Eve, are easy to draw. Both women create high drama on and off stage, treat their friends and lovers as their supporting cast, exude glamour, wear their hearts on their sleeves, and use their sharp wit to cut their adversaries down to size. Like Margo, Julia demands our attention (and ultimately wins our admiration) as she sashays through the film, sweeping us up in her personal travails and exacting delicious revenge on the fools who wrong her. And though Bening isn't quite as histrionic as Bette Davis, she melts into the part, crafting a riveting portrayal that flirts with caricature, but masterfully avoids it. Few actresses today possess as much old-world magnetism as Bening, and she uses every ounce of it to great effect. With joyous abandon, she grabs Julia's reins and fearlessly rides her emotional waves, while using plenty of feminine guile to keep us questioning her motives and actions.

If it sounds like Bening's the whole show, there's a good reason: she is. Sure, her fellow actors contribute excellent work (especially the always wonderful Irons) and director István Szabó infuses the film with a Merchant-Ivory lushness, but it's Bening's performance that makes this trifle worth watching. The actress hasn't been seen to such fine advantage since American Beauty five years ago, and that's five years too long. Her loss at this year's Oscars is now water under the bridge, but hopefully Being Julia will resuscitate Bening's career and bring her better roles.

Being Julia isn't exactly much ado about nothing, but its thin layer of substance spawns a ho-hum attitude toward the film that's hard to shake. Julia Lambert is quite a creation, but she can't compete with such classic Maugham heroines as Sadie Thompson or Mildred Rogers. And as a result, Being Julia—though a first-rate character study—fails to grab us like the author's darker works.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Remastered in high definition, the Being Julia transfer looks clear and sharp, yet sports a lovely warmth that compliments the film's 1930s setting. Colors are rich and well saturated, and the Hungarian countryside (which often doubles for England) is exceptionally well rendered. Fleshtones are natural, and not a speck or scratch sullies the print.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 mix is fairly front-heavy, but the surrounds occasionally kick in with subtle ambient sounds. The all-important dialogue is always easy to understand, and Mychael Danna's understated music score envelops with ease.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bad Education, House of Flying Daggers, Head in the Clouds, William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
4 Deleted Scenes
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by actors Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons, and director István Szabó
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:09m:16s

Extras Review: An audio commentary with Bening, Irons, and director István Szabó leads off the extras, and though at times the interplay is a bit dry, all three participants make cogent points. Irons and Bening both compliment Szabó on his sensitivity in dealing with actors, while the director cites the importance of close-ups in conveying critical subtext—and calls attention to his favorite examples throughout the film. Although Szabó makes several interesting observations, the best sound bytes come from Bening and Irons, who abandon the movie about two-thirds of the way through to conduct a fascinating seminar on the art of acting, and how technique must be altered to fit different mediums. Even if you skip the rest of the commentary, don't miss that segment.

Behind the Scenes of Being Julia is a fairly standard featurette, intercutting clips from the film with interviews with Bening, Irons, Szabó, screenwriter Ronald Harwood, and other cast members. The actors analyze the plot and characters, but few of the comments in the nine-minute piece are very substantive. Behind the Lens…The Making of Being Julia, a five-and-a-half-minute compilation of raw footage, allows us to witness Szabó's interaction with the actors and crew, and spy on the cast as they shoot various scenes. Finally, four deleted scenes totaling five minutes further develop Julia's relationship with her maid/dresser (Julia Stevenson) and provide additional insights into Julia's character.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

Though well produced and finely acted, Being Julia lacks the captivating qualities of its leading lady. Annette Bening breathes lots of life into this wispy theatrical yarn, but even her impressive performance can't quite sustain it. A beautiful transfer, solid audio, and mildly interesting extras enhance the package, making this an attractive rental for select audiences.

 


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