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
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
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!
~~ Jules Brenner