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Cinema Signal:

Restoration Comedy in Performance

. "Being Julia"

When you have a performance as fresh and audacious as this one from a movie star who doesn't average a film a year, it makes you wonder why we see so little of her. But here she is, Annette Benning, ("Open Range," "Valmont," 1989) wowing us with her patented delicious verve in the form of stage nautiness--a portrayal that should go on more than one Best Actress list for the year 2004.

As the great Julia Lambert, an actress who is comfortably the toast of the London stage in the early 30s, insecurity typical of the artist conjures in her mind a premonition of fading vitality at the grand age of forty. Worries of it bring her close to a breakdown as she begins to look for other stimuli to give her life meaning all the while consulting her muse Jimmy Langton (Michael Gambon), her early drama coach. He's gone now, but she can conjure him up, too, as a larger than life visualization. He's the voice in her ear to tell her when she's going well or going astray.

More tangible is the guidance of Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), her canny, pipe-puffing producer who happens also to be the man with whom she's in a marriage of convenience and mutual respect. In the business of theatre, he is her truest artistic and career guide. He also recognizes an actor's insecurity when he sees it and, knowingly or not, provides a spark for her spirit in the form of introducing her to twenty-something American Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans). This lad's admiration of famous lady is both a balm to her sagging spirits and a tightrope of opportunism.

In the picture as close confidant and dependable friend is Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood) who provides comfort through thick or thin. But, friends come in all places for the star, with an equal share of flamboyance and vulnerability, of grand gesture and sensitive humanity. Among those who know her best, her dresser Evie (Juliet Stevenson), is outstanding as an outlet for playful derision and everlasting fan of the talent she knows so well.

Julia pursues her romantic needs seemingly aware of the ambition and shaky moral fiber that pervades her world. But, despite that awareness, when her lover's philandering ways become more than suspicion, she collapses emotionally, only to revive with a sense of command that makes for a brilliant third act which focuses the stagelights on her wicked genius. This final episode is comprised of her own dramatized vengeance that sets things straight onstage and off. Benning pulls off a performance of stunning style and juicy enjoyment. That is, if you're on her Julia's side, and we all are!

From a novella by W. Somerset Maugham that could easily be construed as dated, screenwriter Ronald Harwood achieves a rich and balanced adaptation with dialogue that has the sparkle of humor and good wit for today. Paced to perfection, it characterizes the time as well as the personalities. Istv n Szab˘'s direction wastes no motion in keeping us fully engaged by an entertainment of fine style and sophistication led by superbly crafted and tempered acting. Lajos Koltai's lighting enhances everything before his lens.

Kudos and bouquets to all but most especially to Annette Bening for a delectably meaty job of saucing up the drama and for an inimitable screen presence that can only be faulted for not showing up as often on our screens as the talent would justify, if not demand. Bravisima!

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner

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Site rating: 10

yes, Annette was superb, and Mr. Irons was no slacker either.

                                                           ~~ Ken A. 

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