Miss Julie

You should’ve been an actor

Miss JulieLiv Ullmann’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s perpetually-performed 1880s naturalist play (arguably the first successful stageplay of its type, and also one that, against the popular “rule,” decided that theatre characters could be real people with more to them than a single “motivation”) pulls open the wounds of its characters and allows the audience access to all of their layers.  Ullmann, winner of a Golden Globe, nominee for a handful of Academy Awards, and longtime collaborator of Ingmar Bergman, continues her collection of brilliant adaptations, adding dialogue and sets to Strindberg’s minimalist narrative without diluting its original intention (of course, what we take that intention to be carries a slightly different context 120-something years later) – in fact, if anything, this film enhances its power.

Though Strindberg thoroughly examines the psychology of his characters, Miss Julie still revolves around a Big Idea: the title character (played here by prolific-as-ever Jessica Chastain) represents a doomed class of pompous aristocrats who invent hardships for themselves, whilst Jean (called “John” in the film and played by Colin Farrell, once again using his natural voice, which tends to bring out his best characters), manservant to the Count (“Baron” here), represents the working class, who are better-suited to adaptability as far as the roles they can play in life.  It all works because the whole messy conflict is born of very basic, very natural desires.  Miss Julie is impulsive.  And think about this: in 1888, it was okay to write an impulsive character, i.e. a person who does things just because she feels like it.  So there’s a wildcard right away, but she also has issues concerning her upbringing and her parents, whose toxic (to put it lightly) relationship caused her to hate all men, whom she still can’t seem to get away from, and during the short timeline of the story, she shifts erratically between chastising and flirting with John, who has technically promised to marry Kristin (“Kathleen” here, played by Samantha Morton).  Kathleen, who “represents” nothing, is free to be a fully-realized human being who takes no lip from anyone of any gender.

The film version could be referred to as a character study, especially given its performances and additional dialogue (written by Ullmann herself).  The imagery is beautiful and truly poignant, and although going for something that feels heightened and very old, achieves something that feels like we haven’t seen it before, even those of us familiar with Strindberg’s work.  It comes together this way because neither Julie nor John is solely responsible for their midnight tryst, nor is either of them “good” or “evil” or one-hundred-percent “correct” despite the story’s battle-of-wits structure.  These are complicated people working to get out of a momentous predicament in a rigid world.  And boy, did Ullman find the actors who could pull this off: Jessica Chastain’s version of Miss Julie spends two hours fluctuating between soft, stagy monologues about the beauty of the moon and lilacs; and prolonged fits of hysterics, during which she sheds genuine tears, minces her vocal cords, and goes red-faced before our eyes (and this all actually happens; it’s not a movie-magic trick).  Colin Farrell, in a steamrolling performance as a character who is not extremely likeable in the play, manages to make John a soft, sympathetic workman trying to reconcile one kind of love with another kind of love with self-respect.  Morton’s Kathleen, the only other character in the film, is depicted as a person who knows her station in life, but who has complex ideas about what it means to consider the ruling class “betters,” knows what should be expected of folks in Julie’s and John’s places, and reacts exactly how you’d expect someone to react to the behavior she witnesses.

Ullmann directs the film as a stage version might be directed (aside from the cuts, of course), and the minimal sets, particularly the infamous kitchen, are so realistic that the echo of the characters’ voices is heard with every line (no studio manicuring here).  The added scene of Miss Julie as a child, sending a batch of young lilacs floating down a stream, bookends the story with a similar original scene that involves Julie’s same gesture as an adult – it’s a gorgeous piece of imagery, and leaves no question as to whether the eponymous character goes through with her implied suicide in Strindberg’s original.  Consider the final images of each character: John, dressed in his servant uniform again, ascends the stairs to wait on the Baron.  Julie lies in a red pool, her lilacs clotting against a rock in the middle of the stream, unable to go forward.

If you think that’s boring, I don’t want to know you.

Miss Julie (2014); written and directed by Liv Ullmann; starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Samantha Morton.

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