Renée Zellweger is phenomenal in a compelling Judy Garland biopic that skirts too close to formula
Here is an extraordinary lead performance trapped in a film that cannot resist falling into the same, broad territory as so many by-the-numbers biopics. Renée Zellweger delivers what is perhaps her most impressive turn yet in a very watchable but very familiar film that can’t quite match her commitment. Thankfully director Rupert Goold (True Story) understands he’s struck gold in casting Zellwegger as Judy Garland, and ensures to make her immersive, transformative turn the focus. Five minutes in, you forget you’re watching Bridget Jones at all.
Judy opens with a beautiful shot that hints at a far more inventive picture than the one we finally get: a close-up of young Judy (Darcy Shaw) listening to infamous MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer as he monologues about her career. The shot, delivered as a single long take, follows the pair as they step out onto the set of The Wizard of Oz, Mayer explaining to Garland that she is not like other girls – and that she must sacrifice a normal life to succeed. It’s a lesson that would come to haunt her, as Mayer assumed control over every inch of her life, plying the star with drugs, and refusing to let her eat. This, of course, has taken its toll by the time we meet Judy again in her late forties, as played by Zellwegger, and verging on career stagnation.
It’s 1969, and Garland – out of money and out of luck – accepts an offer to go abroad for a series of shows in London, hoping it will help her to create a more stable life for her family. In this sense, Judy has a lot in common with Stan and Ollie, another recent biopic about the formerly famous packing their bags and hoping that things will get better in London. The similarities aren’t just on a narrative level: Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly were both the best things about that TV movie dressed up as a proper film, and here, too, Zellwegger’s jittery performance upgrades a picture built on formula into one that thrives on its actor’s work alone – not necessarily through some process of imitation, either, but in the way she channels Judy’s playful spirit through heaps of melancholy.
There are other characters, though “characters” feels a little generous: Jessie Buckley and Michael Gambon appear as Judy’s London liaisons, but are given little else to do except prod her in the right direction. Buckley has ample screen time, but plays a character of so few notes that you wonder why she took the part; perhaps she just wanted to watch Zellwegger work up close – and it must have been magical. Zellwegger sings, too, and very well, though there is a slight visual and aural disconnect between her having recorded the tunes in a studio and not live on set.
There is an awkwardly broad subplot featuring two gay superfans who, rendered as caricatures, exist mainly to let us know that Garland was and remains a gay icon. Later, this thread comes back in a cringeworthy finale where an entire audience are required to pick up Judy at her lowest point. This doesn’t totally discredit a film that is, in essence, enjoyable in the moment, and one with occasional flashes of brilliance. But it does also seem to partly trivialise what was a real tragedy – especially as, over the credits, we’re told Garland died a few months later. Judy settles for sad crowd-pleaser, but it never dares to be as bleak as the truth.
By: Tom Barnard
Get Judy showtimes in London.
This post was categorised in Reviews.