Film Review – Miss Julie
I’m at such conflict regarding Miss Julie (2014) that I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not. There are many things worth commending, one of which is the strength of the performances. But as I step back and think about it as an overall piece, I find myself overwhelmingly…unaffected. This is one of those strange instances where you can sense what a film is doing and what it’s trying to say, but you remain detached. As much as I tried to engage with it, I never got past the point of mild admiration.
I was not familiar with August Strindberg’s famous play, which this is an adaptation of. But I’m well aware of Liv Ullmann, and the fact that she wrote the screenplay and directed (for the first time in fourteen years) caught my attention. As many already know, Ullmann was a frequent collaborator of one Ingmar Bergman. Perhaps not intentionally done, there is a lingering influence in the way Ullmann builds her aesthetic. Set in a late 19th century Northern Irish mansion – with a color palette flush with deep reds, blues, and burgundies – the environments call to mind works like Cries & Whispers (1972) or Fanny and Alexander (1982). The tone has a methodical, deliberate pace, with a small group of actors rotating in frequent conversation. If you like the “filmed stage play” approach, this is for you, as Ullmann strictly adheres to it. Most of the action takes place in two or three places, and remains confined the entire way.
We’re introduced to the three main players: Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, her father’s valet John (Colin Farrell), and her cook/servant Kathleen (Samantha Morton). Over the course of a midsummer night when everyone else is away, we watch the three remaining residents interact, divulging personal hopes, dreams, and despairs in a strange hybrid of sex and class conflict that only gets more disparaging as things unfold.
That is all we’re given in terms of exposition, but Ullmann is not concerned with plot. Instead, she focuses deeply on the characters. There is an odd love triangle at play – John and Kathleen are already involved, but Miss Julie finds herself drawn to John to the point of seducing him (or forcing him to seduce her). The themes are laid out plainly. In terms of class, Miss Julie is clearly John’s superior, but in a time and place where gender dynamics still hold archaic rules, John is still a man and Miss Julie is still a woman. He is lowborn, dreaming of moving up the economic ladder, while she was placed in a position of privilege and comfort with nowhere else to go. The main point of tension is seeing them navigate their feelings for each other when everything they know forbids them from doing so.
The biggest strength here is the work of the actors. Ullmann captures them almost always in close up, and justifiably so, as each performer uses their most important tool (their face) to strong effect. Colin Farrell continues to be an underrated actor, hiding his movie-star presence in service of his character. He is both romantic and diabolical, and flips between the two convincingly. While Samantha Morton is operating as the third wheel, she makes the most of her limited screen time as the subservient maid, acting as the most even-keeled of the three. Jessica Chastain takes the spotlight however, carrying the most difficult role. Miss Julie is an exaggerated character, with many ups and downs. Chastain goes for it with full on gesturing, screaming, and confusion, as her character falls deeper into the abyss. Yet not one ounce of her performance rang false. She remains a constant, even when Miss Julie appears to fall apart.
For all the positives going on, I still had difficulty being fully involved with the film. There was never a sense of urgency to get from one scene to the next. The leisurely pacing watered down the themes being examined. At just over two hours, the narrative loses steam as secrets start being revealed. The performances are all convincing, but the story was never gripping. Characters seemed to switch emotions almost randomly, sometimes within the same scene or even the same conversation. This is something that often happens in a “filmed stage play.” If you’re ok with tones frequently shifting, where characters go from loving each other to hating each other and back again, then this occurrence may not be a problem. That may very well be the intention if it’s meant to represent the characters’ mental instability, but I didn’t find the execution to be persuasive enough to succeed.
Miss Julie is worth watching to see three dynamic actors deliver contrasting but equally powerful work. Each of them gives a monologue or two that are mesmerizing within a vacuum. But when everything is stitched together, we find the whole picture not as good as the singular parts that make it.