Bening adds layers of mirth, mystery to "Julia"
Seattle Times movie critic
Some movies are a full dinner, some are a light but satisfying lunch, and others are afternoon tea — prettily insubstantial, but intentionally so. István Szabó's period comedy "Being Julia" falls in the latter category; it's a cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off, refreshing and enjoyable and merely a memory by 6 o'clock. But just as there's an art to making a cucumber sandwich (beware sogginess, at all costs), there's an art to making this kind of movie — and Szabó has assembled all the right ingredients and combined them with a delicate but masterful touch. The result, for the most part, is delicious.
Annette Bening, whose movie appearances are all too rare these days (this is only her second movie in four years), sashays through "Being Julia" like a decorous hurricane, looking cut-glass perfect in her '30s frocks and furs, and seemingly having a wonderful time. She's Julia Lambert, a fortysomething actress in 1938 London, married more-or-less happily to a theatrical producer (Jeremy Irons) and enjoying a successful career. Julia dreams of someday retiring and enjoying potatoes and beer, but for now she's well-bred and elegant, purring at her admirers, giving a careful performance of a happy woman.
Enter a very young man: Tom (Shaun Evans). He's half her age and says he's her greatest fan. Gushing party chat leads to lunches, which leads to a few, ahem, unscheduled matinee performances in Tom's tiny flat. But Tom, it turns out, has a little scheme, involving a pretty ingénue (Lucy Punch) who wants a role in Julia's next play. Will our heroine's spirits, not to mention her saucy hats, be crushed? Stay tuned for the final act, in which Julia proves herself to be an even better actress than her greatest fan might have dreamed.
None of this is especially complex or surprising, but Bening turns it all into a master class in acting, unleashing an arsenal of sly looks, half- and quarter-smiles, pretty pouts and knowing grins. (A character describes her, perfectly, as a "glorious monster.") Irons, smooth as bone china, makes an elegant foil; Juliet Stevenson, as the long-suffering maid who simultaneously adores Julia and wants to swat her, provides wry support. Evans, the only cast member who doesn't seem to be having much fun, is the weak link — but one stale biscuit can't spoil an otherwise tasty spread.
It's all lovely to look at, filled with shiny licorice-black cars, winsome frocks and the sort of period detail that makes some of us sigh for Merchant-Ivory's heyday. (There's a marvelous party scene in which everybody does a sort of dignified jitterbug, with backs as straight as flagpoles.) But it's Bening who steals the eye. Watch Julia looking into a mirror, talking breezily about falling in love with love — then, as Tom leaves, she suddenly lets her breath out, with a dainty little blow. Was Julia acting, or is she too good an actress for Tom — or us — to tell? Only Bening, with her cat-ate-the-canary smile, knows.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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