Movie Review: Judy

Judy Garland is a cult icon, whose career spanned 45 years, best known for her portrayal of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The quintessential girl next door actress, singer and dancer was as famous for her personal struggles as she was for her entertainment career. Judy focuses on her 5-week residency at a London theatre. Much like Stan & Ollie, this biographical character portrait explores Garland’s later life and career.

In some ways a haunting echo of her most famous song, ‘Over the Rainbow’, flashbacks reveal some of her early trials as a young actress in a double standard Hollywood. While these moments shaped her career and health, they have a universality to them as many actresses will be able to attest to, even now. As much as she had gumption, opting to do things her own way in spite of strict diets and contractual obligations, living your entire life through a lens will eventually catch up with you. Worn out and struggling to get her act together quite literally amid financial woes and dependencies, the bittersweet biopic is haunting and has a melancholy as we get snippets of Judy’s long-running career.

While Judy makes a fascinating overview and retrospective, it really is Renée Zellweger’s transformative performance that carries the day. Through a carefully calibrated make-up, styling and wardrobe she is able to embody Garland’s character wholeheartedly. Almost unrecognisable, the mannerisms, speech pattern and even singing make it easy to see why she won a Golden Globe and could easily see her way to an Oscar.

“Seriously, another rainbow cake?”

Based on the stage play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter and adapted to screen by The Crown’s Tom Edge, the filmmakers have managed to give the biopic a sense of space. While predominantly set at London’s ‘Talk of the Town’, it doesn’t have the stage constraints often associated with stage-to-screen adaptations. Directed by Rupert Goold, who was at the helm of True Story, there’s an uneasiness to the prestige production.

Unfortunately, the cinematic experience is somewhat frustrating owing to its specific areas of brilliance. Authentic mis-en-scene transports you to the era while Zellweger’s immersive performance is captivating. The lead performance is quite spectacular and the production design is manicured, yet it’s surprisingly sluggish and even dull at times. Zellweger’s performance brings the character to life and it has the earmarks of a contender, yet it’s subdued by a perpetual stuffiness and a sense of helplessness.

The experience can be likened to Jackie or The Iron Lady, the Jackie Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher biopics starring Natalie Portman and Meryl Streep. The film looks the part and is bolstered by a terrific lead performance, but struggles to weave its powerful and iconic figures into a relatable and empathetic story. Blown away by the visual craft and performance, yet underwhelmed by the emotional disconnect and dissonance, it becomes an exercise in appreciation and patience rather than entertainment.

Thankfully Judy does have a final emotional flourish to redeem it in the eleventh hour, but the slog of getting there is largely offset by the quality of Zellweger’s performance. Perhaps having some more substantial characters for her to push off would’ve made all the difference. The alienation of her going it on her own and upstream may be accurate in terms of approximating the character, but sacrifices the audience connection in the process. While it has many quality ingredients, it seems to be a film of moments, giving it a whiff of Oscar bait.

The bottom line: Spiffy