Liv Ullmann Puts Jessica Chastain Back on the High Road with “Miss Julie”

Jessica Chastain is an actress who gives her directors exactly what they want. When the director is good, her performance is good, but when her director is bad, she is horrid. Her feature debut, in Dan Ireland’s masterful film of E.L. Doctorow’s short story, “Jolene,” was so promising that much of her subsequent work was a disappointment. She hit bottom with Kathryn Bigelow’s wretched 2012 piece of pro-torture propaganda, “Zero Dark Thirty.” She did exactly what her director asked her to do, and it came off embarrassingly amateurish. I am happy to say that Liv Ullmann has lifted Miss Chastain back to the high road. Her performance as August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” is nothing short of brilliant, perhaps the finest performance an English-speaking actress has given in a film version of a Scandinavian play.

As John, the servant with whom she celebrates the fateful mid-summer’s eve, Colin Farrell is every bit her equal. He hasn’t been this good since 2005’s “The New World,” in which he brought a troubling ambiguity to the character of Captain John Smith. He is even more ambiguous here, where he proclaims his love with the same manipulative mendacity as he proves his hatred. With these two powerhouses in the leads, it is easy to overlook Samantha Morton, who has made a career of playing thankless roles. Her Kathleen, ostensibly John’s fiancé although their relationship does not seem to be headed for the altar, supplies a moral balance to the shifting roles of dominant and submissive played by the baron’s daughter and his valet. But in the Darwinian struggle for survival between a falling aristocracy and a rising working class, the long-suffering Kathleen is doomed to continue in her suffering, regardless of the outcome of the class warfare that colors her world with uncertainty.

Ullmann has lived and worked with genius for much of her career, and is not one to take it lightly. Her direction never falters for a moment of the film’s taut two hours. She is sure about the meaning of every gesture, and finds a way for her actors to communicate the variegated meanings of each spoken word. The entire play is set in a few rooms, each of which is decorated with a simple elegance that re-inforces Strindberg’s unpretentious naturalism. Although his later works tend toward the obscure and symbolic, in “Miss Julie” things as well as people are what they are. Julie and John might represent their respective classes, but they are by no means symbols of these groups.

Even if you have enjoyed the cheapening of the classics that has become the rule of contemporary novel and play adaptations, you will not feel imprisoned in some foreign place and time by Ullmann’s faithfulness to Strindberg’s play. The action is topical, sexually as well as socially, in Ullmann’s film, and you won’t feel the need for au courant fashions and popular music to spice up the proceedings. Strindberg is spice enough for any era.

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6 thoughts on “Liv Ullmann Puts Jessica Chastain Back on the High Road with “Miss Julie”

  1. Bill, you are highly informed and talented and I appreciate your sophisticated writing style. If you don’t mind me observing, you are radical in your opinions. 1. Everyone on WordPress seems to love Mad Max Fury. 2. I think Chastain is wonderful. Just watched Zero Dark Thirty last week and thought she did a fine job acting. 3. You hate Kathryn Bigalow as a director? Just watched Chastain the other night in A Most Violent Year. She did well for me there, too. I’m glad to hear you approve of Jolene. My point–with many of your reviews, you are not just dissatisfied but are vomiting over there with repulsion. Your derision for today’s moving making is palpable. I think you are the man who knows too much and the rest of us are duped sheep. What gives?

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  2. Cindy, During my ten years as a film critic, i saw just about everything long in advance of any published reviews, which were prohibited by the distributors to appear before the day of the fllm’s release. therefore, everything I wrote was my honest opinion of the movie. It was the job of the critic to lead the debate over a film, not follow it. Today, I still watch movies without reading any of the pre-release hype, so my opinion is not swayed by what others say. Most of what I read in the blogosphere is simply a variation on what the publicists have already spread through the web. As you know, I see about 700 movies a year, with no particular leanings toward any genre or era, although when I choose to study some older films it is because of a pre-existing interest. Of all the new movies I saw last year, I was enthusiastic about over 30 of them, and the average person probably doesnt even see 30 movies a year to begin with. And those they see, they see because they are expecting to like them. I, on the other hand, will watch anything. Also, and most important, I am no longer working as a professional film critic, and so have no obligation to write within those confines. I fact, if all I have to say is whether I think a movie is worth the price of admission, then the time I have devoted to writing on this subject has been a waste.My aim is to write about film in a way that leans away from the critical and toward the literary. My struggle with contemporary cinema is representative of an older person’s struggle with popular culture, When I complete all three volumes of “Cinema Penitentiary,” that will become more apparent. .

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  3. Bill, I enjoy reading your articles because I learn something new every time. I’m not a sycophant, but I think highly of your opinion because I recognize your knowledge base of films far exceeds my own. So when I think an actor or story line or cinematography is solid and you think it’s shit, it makes me puzzled. It’s perfectly fine if we disagree, but I don’t like feeling obtuse. Generally, I categorize films like literature as either created for commercial success or for the art. So when I watch “Star Trek: Into Darkness”, I’m eating pistachio almond fudge ice cream out of the container and loving every bite, while when I’m watching Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” I’m sucking on a truffle while drinking red wine. Both are very pleasurable experiences. I tend to forgive stupid one-liners and a plot hole here and there because I want to be entertained, or I see the vision and admire the attempt even if it falters. That makes me conventional and boring. Anyway, “less critical, more literary”–I’ll keep reading. 🙂

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    1. Cindy, Thank you for reading me even when you think we disagree. I dont see it as disagreement, as all ideas have an equal value. One person need not be wrong for another to be right.. .Personal aesthetics are the result of so many accidental encounters with works of art and pieces of crap that how each of us perceives a particular book or movie or painting is the result of countless subjective experiences. I recently spoke with a college student who did not even consider “Wizard of Oz” a movie. To her, it looked like a student play. and another kid of about the same age believed that 3D was a new invention for the movies. Most people today dont see the difference between the medium and the content, and so digital projection does not differ from cellulloid projection,but to me I cannot stand watching digital projection in a movie theatre. I appreciate the advances in television (and i consider bluray such an advance) but they have won the decades old battle between movies and teevee…For me, movies no longer exist as the same medium that produced what we know historically as motion pictures. And people who come of age watching digital projections may never know what the experience of going to the movies was like,just as those who came of age after the introduction of Cds may never know what a record sounds like. One issue Id like to address is the difference you draw between art and entertainment. Of course, when I sit down to watch an Antoinioni or Bergman film for the 20th time, I am in a different state of mind than when I relax with a Liam Neesen chase movie or Elvis musical before going to sleep. But when the same movie theatre is showing Clouds of Sils Maria and Fury Road, those movies are competing for the same dollar in the same marketplace, so I approach them both as having potentially equal value. For me, both must succeed as art as well as entertainment to hold my sustained interest. As far as escapist entertainment goes, I am more entertained by singing and dancing than chasing and killing.

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