Judy – Film Review
by David Turpin
Director: Rupert Goold
Writers: Tom Edge (screenplay by), Peter Quilter (based on the stageplay “End of the Rainbow” by)
Stars: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock
At some future point after the collapse of human society – so, about twenty years hence – aliens will descend to Earth to sift through the remains of what we once called our ‘culture’. It’s tempting to speculate about what they might think about one of the weirder artefacts of the end-days: the Impersonation Film. The genre – in which an elaborately made-up but still recognisable famous person plays another famous person, usually at some compressed but critical juncture in his or her life – is a truly peculiar phenomenon that has come to dominate awards season with such regularity that every filmgoer’s autumn months are overhung by the vaguely ominous question: ‘Who’s next?’
Some examples have been compelling for the right reasons (Jackie, 2016); others unmissable for all the wrong ones (Diana, 2013; Grace of Monaco, 2014). Some might have been more palatable if they were performed by Spitting Image puppets (The Iron Lady, 2011); others looked like they just might have been (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018). Spare a thought for our alien visitors, though, when they attempt to figure out what to make of Judy, in which someone who doesn’t much resemble Renée Zellweger tears into a guns-blazing impersonation of someone who doesn’t much resemble Judy Garland, and elbows into the ‘Oscar conversation’ with sufficient force to send any number of better, subtler performances scattering like bowling pins.
The action takes place in 1968, as Saint Judy of the Countless Prescriptions decamps to London for a string of concerts at fashionable venue Talk of the Town. She arrives trailing any number of personal problems including – but not limited to – a fractious relationship with her ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell); the potential loss of child custody; an ill-advised entanglement with a much younger man (played by Finn Wittrock’s hair and teeth); and, lest we forget, pills pills pills!
In an economically evoked ‘swinging city’, Judy has telling encounters with a capable but strained personal assistant (a thankless part for Jessie Buckley); an indulgent nightclub owner (a brief cameo for Michael Gambon); and a pair of beleaguered gay fans (including a gamely soppy Andy Nyman) whom she describes – in an absurdly pandering anachronism – as her ‘allies’. She also sings, and while Zellweger’s slightly pinched vocal is by no means disastrous, it doesn’t quite convey whatever it was about Garland that spoke to listeners’ vulnerabilities and yearnings with such piercing directness.
Zellweger’s is a deeply bizarre feat of acting – never convincing as anything but a performance, but occasionally fascinating less as a portrait of Garland than as a tussle between two star personas that clang against each other but occasionally, alchemically fuse. There are moments where a confluence of performance, lighting and camera angle suddenly make Zellweger look fleetingly, uncannily like Garland – so much so that this correspondent was reminded of another weird contemporary trend, the ‘deep fake’ video in which one celebrity’s face momentarily shimmers into that of another by way of digital trickery. These are the moments when Zellweger has come over to Judy’s side. More often, they meet in the middle – and while there’s entertainment to be had in both instances, it’s slightly disconcerting to attend a film about Judy Garland, of all people, and discover that the actual camp hysteria is principally somebody else’s.
Despite the grandstanding performance at its centre, one can’t help but wonder if Judy might have played a little better on television – specifically on BBC One after Boxing Day dinner. The medium – and the circumstances – might be more forgiving to the leading lady’s staginess, and to the generic flatness of almost everything else around her. On the big screen, it feels both oddly insubstantial and all too much – though if Zellweger wants another Oscar this fiercely, by all means let her have it. Just don’t ask this correspondent to explain it to our visitors from beyond.