A star turn is the only thing of note in this empty, uninsightful biopic
Director: Rupert Goold
Cast: Renée Zellweger (Judy Garland), Jessie Buckley (Rosalyn Wilder), Finn Wittrock (Mickey Deans), Rufus Sewell (Sid Luft), Michael Gambon (Bernard Delfont), Richard Cordery (Louis B Mayer), Darci Shaw (Young Judy Garland), Bella Ramsey (Lorna Luft), Royce Pierreson (Burt Rhodes), Andy Nyman (Dan), Daniel Cerqueira (Stan), Gemma-Leah Devereux (Liza Minnelli)
By 1969 Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) was homeless, broke and stuck in a pill-and-alcohol fuelled depression. Desperate to provide a home for her children, she flew to London for a five-week booking at the Talk of the Town nightclub. Judy sees her, pushed beyond her physical and emotional limits, as she struggles to complete the run – or even get on stage – marrying the feckless young Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) and flashbacks to her memories as a Hollywood child star (Darci Shaw), under the punishing “mentorship” of studio head Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery).
All this gets mixed together in Goold’s uninspired, sentimental and rather empty biopic that never really gets to grips with Garland’s personality, so desperate is it to shoe-horn her into a bog-standard narrative of redemption mixed with personal tragedy. Garland, I’m sure, would have hated it: she always pushed back against the idea that her life had been tragic (which this film whole-heartedly embraces) and the portrayal of her as a constantly misunderstood victim, generously one-sided as it is, boils her down into someone with no agency or control at all in her life.
As such, the most effective parts of this film are the flashbacks to her childhood, filming Wizard of Oz, living off diet pills so she can’t put on weight and working 18-hour days. All under the direction of a monstrously calm Louis B Mayer – a terrific performance of amiable, grandfatherly menace from Richard Cordery – who pleasantly tells her she is a dumpy child who must work like a dog to get ahead and owes everything to him. If the film gets anywhere to understanding Garland’s psychology, it’s in these scenes – I’d rather they’d made it about this than her swan song in England.
In the 1969 sections, the film continues to try and communicate that a life of constant work and pressure left Garland an emotional, physical (and possibly mental) wreck. It puts us on her side, stressing her vulnerability and desperation which she covers with brittle, demanding behaviour. But it’s too squeamish to show too much of her popping pills and downing more than the odd glass of vodka – despite the fact she’s clearly intoxicated for large parts of the film. It only briefly looks at how crippling anxiety affected her unwillingness to rehearse and implies her time in London was a lengthy period of unending servitude rather than a five-week booking singing her greatest hits (the film is hugely vague about timelines to increase the feeling of Garland’s powerlessness).
The film isn’t even smart enough to give us moments where other characters get a glimpse of the fragility under Garland’s prima donnai-sh petulance. Despite her treating both of them as a mix of underlings and informers, Jessie Buckley’s minder and Royce Pierreson’s pianist inexplicably become friends to the star part-way through the film. There is no scene to transition this, no moment of fragile tenderness they witness that makes them understand there is more to this demanding person than they initially thought. Instead, it feels like the narrative requires them to like her just as the audience is supposed to, so whoosh they like her.
The one affecting sequence sees a lonely Garland bumping into two gay fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) and rather sweetly asking if they would have dinner with her (they are of course thrilled). Back at their apartment, they cook a disgusting looking omelette, play the piano and she listens as they are tearfully talk about their life of persecution in homophobic Britain. It’s gentle, sweet and the only time we (or she) get a real sense of what Garland means to people – these fans idolise her as a symbol of hope. Even this scene is undermined by (a) it not having any lasting impact on Garland as soon as it finishes and (b) these characters being shoe-horned into a blatantly emotionally manipulative ending almost unwatchable in its cloying feel-good-ish-ness.
The one thing the film has going for it is a committed, pitch-perfect performance by Renée Zellweger who captures the vocal and physical mannerisms perfectly. She won every award going including the Oscar. It’s an impressive study and she plays the moments of pain as committedly and rawly as the gentle, tender moments. She does everything the film asks of her, and it’s not her fault that it asks so little of her. There is no dive into Garland’s personality, no questioning that any of her ills were self-inflicted, no criticism for her not turning up for gigs where customers have paid a fortune to see her, no attempt to explore other perspectives on the impact of her actions or how she has become the woman she is.
Instead, Judy meanders towards its semi-feelgood ending without ever really letting us feel we’ve understood much about either this woman or her difficult life, other than framing her as a victim from a life of exhausting show-biz exploitation. Told within a story that is low on drama, pathos or humour, you end up wondering what point it was trying to make in the first place.