Jacob Richardson | 9/10/2019
This biopic is undoubtedly limited in scope and does little to contextualize Garland’s starpower, but it does act as a compelling vehicle for an inimitable performance by Renee Zellweger.
The year is 1969, and Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) has fallen on tough times. Decades of being labelled ‘tough to work with’, coupled with deep psychological scarring from years of abuse at the hands of her MGM handlers, has left her unable to adequately provide for her children. She accepts a residency in London as a final act of defiance, designed to provide her with the financial stability needed to wrest her children from the grips of their father Sid (Rufus Sewell). In London, however, her new handler Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) discovers that it isn’t so easy to keep Judy focused on the performance and the shows, and away from the pills and alcohol.
Garland is an undisputed powerhouse figure of the golden era of Hollywood. Her work characterised a generation, in such indelible films as The Wizard Of Oz and A Star Is Born. This film doesn’t really get into all of that though. It does provide some context to her addiction issues, borne out of the studios management of her, in a series of flashbacks; but these are all focussed on The Wizard of Oz era, which doesn’t really get to the crux of her position at the time. The video below, while providing a bit of a review that we don’t necessarily agree with, does do a good job of providing some background that you might need if you aren’t a Judy aficionado.
While it doesn’t do a good job at showing why Judy was such an iconic figure, this film does do a great job at showing how she struggled to do right in the end. We get a glimpse of the level of her fame with the reception she gets in London. We also get a glimpse of the depravity of her addiction issues, as she struggles to sleep without a ‘downer’ pill, or fails to attend show after show. Most effectively this is shown in a sequence just before her first London show, where Rosalyn has to race from the venue to grab the late Judy from her hotel room bathroom, prep her like a child, and bustle her off onto the stage. Judy’s persistent inclination that she isn’t good enough resounds off the screen right up until the moment she steps on stage and the crowd welcomes her; then she slips straight into performance mode like a well-fitting glove. It’s a pleasure to see the well-portrayed contrast between the confident Judy we know and the nervous wreck backstage.
The central piece of Judy, however, is Zellweger’s performance. Zellweger is out of this world good in the title role. She captures the small mannerisms of Garland so incredibly well, from both the fragile, introspective side and the more outgoing stage persona. It’s a role the actress seems to have almost entirely lost herself in, with little ability to distinguish between the two. The only areas where that occurs is in the singing, although who can blame Zellweger for not quite living up to Garland’s iconic voice. It’s a close enough approximation as to be convincing and to not take you out of the story.
There are also some nifty directorial choices, like a deeply engrossing long take on Judy’s first powerhouse performance in London, with the camera swinging in and out to give a sense of the grandeur while also a feel for the excitement in Judy’s eyes. However, a number of the choices feel rote and stale; most significantly of which is the final crowd-pleasing, and crowd-involving, rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Coupled with a final title slide telling of Judy’s untimely demise, it serves to reinforce an overall theme of this film; one of shallow complexity. Yes, Judy tackles Garland’s addiction issues, but it also shies away from truly dealing with the subject matter in favour of an upbeat, uplifting ending that doesn’t accurately capture the nature of Garland’s disease.
A compelling biopic about a Hollywood legend, that smooths over many of the rough edges while making room for Zellweger to shine.