Rating3.0 / 5
Renée Zellweger, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock
17 October 2019
When a Hollywood biopic plays out like the director glanced over a Wikipedia article, we’ve got to be thankful actors like Renée Zellweger are there to save the whole affair.
Once among the biggest Hollywood superstars of her days, the great Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) finds her past of stardom pressures and substance abuse has caught up to her. She passes her mid-forties and finds herself struggling with declining health, financial problems and motherhood. In a final bid to recapture the magic and have the world fall in love with her again, Judy heads to London to perform multiple sold-out shows to enthusiastic fans, while her personal demons threaten to unravel her.
Another year, another helping of run-of-the-mill biopics to give actors a leg-up in the bid for awards season. More often than not, films tailor-made as biographical Oscar bait will give us an excellent performance, but will never quite break the mould or give us a raw, nitty-gritty look at their iconic subject. With this being the model, you’re unlikely to find a film this year more biopic-y than Rupert Goold’s Judy.
Proving himself an immediate expert at playing by the rules, Goold even adheres to the “Hollywood legend” subcategory of story structure and sets the stage on a tumultuous final tour of extreme highs and lows. Laurel and Hardie were given the very same treatment just shy of a year ago, but while Stan & Ollie falls back on its comedic charms, Judy is full-flecked tragedy – the kind designed to draw gasps from its intended audience, which is a concern, considering the number of them that may be on life-support.
Goold, to his credit, paints Garland’s larger than life career as something that was just that. We do feel it when the actress nails a performance to thunderous applause or falters and succumbs to the consequences of her pill-popping and alcoholism. The problem is, ironically, that he forgets to give Judy, and Judy a voice. She’s deeply insecure, self-destructive and longing to be loved – all sympathies deserved, but all very much the same as we’ve seen in every musician’s biopic from here to the sun.
Forgetting to add any unique character to these beats means the melancholic spectacle doesn’t quite resonate as deeply as it should. Perhaps if the flashbacks to Judy’s youthful days working on The Wizard of Oz (featuring a second excellent and overshadowed Garland performance from Darci Shaw) had cared to flesh things out a bit more we would have been taken to that next level and truly felt the sense of fading glory.
Let’s face it though, you know you’re all here because of Zellweger. Having stepped out of the spotlight herself for so long (until recently with Netflix series What/If) and having faced her own share of struggles, there’s that comparative depth and feeling of holding up a mirror that gives her portrayal a layer that the rest of the film sorely lacks.
Interestingly, it’s in this sense that we never truly lose ourselves and forget we’re watching Zellweger playing Garland, but it feels like that’s the point. It’s a ballad of Garland in her frail and detrimental state trying to play the vibrant, soulful version of Garland the people used to love. In committing to the portrait of a portrait, Zellweger passionately succeeds and indeed reminds us of the emotion she’s capable of drawing. Let’s hope this is her bid to stay in the limelight.
Images (c) Universal Pictures 2019