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.