JUDY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Rupert Goold

Stars: Renee Zellweger, Rufus Sewell, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Michael Gambon, Andy Nyman, Gemma-Leah Devereaux, Richard Cordery, Fenella Woolgar, Darci Shaw.

Renée Zellweger in Judy (2019)

It’s been fifty years since Judy Garland, the tragic self-destructive artist and former child star, died in 1969 at the age of 47 from an overdose of barbiturates.

Rather than a conventional biopic about the legendary singer and actress, this is a drama that concentrates on the last few months of her life. At that time she was destitute, addicted to drugs and alcohol and struggling to retain custody of her two young children. She had hoped that the concert tour would give her enough money to pay off her debts and re-establish her reputation and buy a home in LA where she could live comfortably with her children.

As a teenager Garland was hot property for MGM studios, especially with the musical The Wizard Of Oz, but its overbearing and manipulative boss Louis B Mayer (played here by Richard Cordery) controlled most aspects of her adolescent life. He arranged for her to be put on a diet of pills to keep her weight down, which later led to her addiction to prescription drugs and her sleep deprivation. The pressure of her early success affected the impressionable teenager both physically and mentally. When she arrived in London in 1969 her career was virtually over. Her life was a bit of a mess and this was her last chance at redemption and restoring her reputation. However she was unreliable and her subsequent stage performances were somewhat erratic. While the film concentrates mainly on that period of her life, there are several extended flashbacks to her time on the set of The Wizard Of Oz that illustrate the enormous pressure she was under and the psychological abuse she suffered.

However, the thirty years between that film and her concert tour are never really explored. This was a time of some of her great success and triumphs, with Oscar nominated roles in A Star Is Born and Judgment At Nuremberg and her sometimes tempestuous marriage to Vincente Minelli. But the lack of any coverage from this time period doesn’t give us a sense of when it all started to go sour for her and her downward spiral began.

The 2001 television miniseries Life With Judy Garland, which earned Judy Davis an Emmy for her towering performance as the tragic star, was far more detailed and comprehensive in depicting her life and her struggles and her forty-year career. Here Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Diary, etc) delivers a tour de force performance as the mercurially talented but deeply flawed Garland, and she effortlessly captures her emotional fragility, her uneven mental state and mood swings, and her deep-seated insecurities. But she is let down a little by the loose script which tends to lack any sense of urgency and dramatic heft. Nonetheless there is plenty of early Oscar buzz about her performance. Zellweger studied plenty of footage of the real Garland in order to capture her mannerisms and essence, and she inhabits the character completely. Her performances is shaded by lots of subtle nuances, Zellweger also does her own singing here as she covers many of Garland’s signature tunes.

The cast also stars Michael Gambon as Bernard Delfont, the manager of London’s Talk of the Town club; Rufus Sewell as her former husband Sidney Luft; Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, etc) as Rosalyn, who is her minder and assistant during the tour; and Finn Wittrock (from La La Land, etc) as nightclub manager Mickey Deans, with whom she enjoyed a whirlwind relationship and who became her fifth husband.

The biopic Judy is based on the stage play The End Of The Rainbow from British playwright Peter Quilter, which dramatized her comeback tour to play a series of sold out concerts in London. The film has been written by Tom Edge (The Crown, etc), who has expanded upon the source material, and directed by Rupert Goold (True Story). Although it paints a rather bleak portrait of the tragic star, Judy is nonetheless clearly sympathetic towards her. Goold’s approach to the material is pretty straightforward and there are few visual flourishes, and he gives the film a melancholy and poignant tone.

Despite its flaws, Judy is very much Zellweger’s film, and it would not be a surprise to see her collect another Oscar for her stellar performance as the tragic iconic performer.

★★★☆

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