Saturday 12 October 2019

Movie Review: Judy (2019)

A biographical drama about a star fading into life's twilight, Judy features a powerful Renée Zellweger central performance but is otherwise emotionally monotonal.

It's the late 1960s, and former movie star Judy Garland (Zellweger) is bankrupt and reduced to performing for a few dollars in cheap joints, dragging her two younger kids onto the stage when they should be at school. Her ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) takes in the children, and in a desperate attempt to raise money Judy heads to London for a set of concerts.

In a series of flashbacks to the late 1930s, every detail of the life of young Judy (Darci Shaw) is controlled by the MGM studio under the watchful eye of boss Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). She is overworked, and studio-supplied pills control her energy, emotions, diet and sleep patterns.

In London, handler Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) tries to ensure Judy shows up on stage and on time every night. Judy is depressed to be separated from her kids, fully dependent on pills and alcohol, has trouble sleeping, and refuses to rehearse. Still she frequently shines on stage, but her erratic behaviour tests the patience of the show's promoter.

At a time when Hollywood's men controlled and manipulated children for profit, the young Judy Garland could not have conceivably calculated the high price she had to pay throughout her life in return for global adoration. Judy is the story of a wonderfully talented woman as a spent force, her glory days well behind her, the studio system having sucked her dry and deprived her of any normalcy.

The film is written by David Evans (better known as U2's The Edge) as an adaptation of the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilterand. Rather unfortunately, all that Judy has to say is revealed in the opening 30 minutes. By the time Garland is struggling to pull herself onto the London stage for the first time, the movie has a further 90 minutes to run and not much left to say. As an indication of the narrative inertness the few flashback scenes to Judy's childhood emerge as the more enjoyable jolts of energy.

Renée Zellweger is relatively stranded in the sameness of the material, but is nevertheless stellar throughout. Aided by transformational makeup she shines in portraying Judy as a mournful former star aware of the impact she can still have on an adoring public, but unable to undo the damage of a lost childhood and a brain eternally warped on chemicals and alcohol. The singing performance scenes are strong, director Rupert Goold emphasizing the loneliness of the stage.

Consistent with the absence of any evolving drama, the rest of the cast is underpowered and contributes little. Jessie Buckley as chief handler Rosalyn shows character promise but is provided with a functionally truncated role, while Finn Wittrock as fifth husband Mickey Deans drifts in and out of the movie as an advertisement for convenient masculinity. More positive is the excellent set design evoking a late 1960s vibe, a swinging and hip London confirming Garland's status as a throwback misfit.

A sad chapter in the life of a great star, Judy twinkles then fades away.

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