Annette Bening and strong supporting cast are ‘brilliantly nuanced’ in Being Julia
Being Julia has been hailed as a vehicle for Annette Bening that could lead to an Oscar for best actress. But, while it would be surprising if Bening doesn’t get at least a nomination for her work here, the film itself is much more than a one-woman show.
Based on a Somerset Maugham novella, the film is a backstage comedy/drama set in the London theater scene of the 1930s. The story whirls about the ups and downs of an established star (Bening’s Julia) who’s troubled by encroaching middle age and flailing through bouts of boredom and flurries of flamboyant activity.
Bening’s hot-and-cold bravura sustains the portrait of a fascinatingly errant character whose perplexing shifts of emotion and intent may have no center apart from a huge appetite for theatrical gestures and fictional emotions skillfully rendered. But her amusingly scattered story, adapted by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) from Maugham’s novella Theatre, is at its best when we’re getting telling glimpses of the provocative diversity within her closest relationships.
Plot developments take her through a clumsy love affair with an opportunistic young American admirer (Shaun Evans) and a spectacularly entertaining (but somewhat contrived) confrontation with a young actress (Lucy Punch). But some of the best stuff in the film comes out of brilliantly nuanced moments with an exquisitely skillful supporting cast—Juliet Stevenson as Julia’s fiercely attentive dressing-room assistant, Bruce Greenwood as the genial, sexually ambivalent aristocrat who is her most devoted lover and friend and, best of all, Jeremy Irons as her husband and manager, a man of the arts who is simultaneously gracious and detached.
István Szabê's direction only fitfully matches the grace and wit of its professed model (Ernst Lubitsch), but Being Julia is never less than charming and intelligent in its entertainment, and its unostentatious catalog of sexual diversity makes it agreeably subversive as well.