2004 TIFF Update #2: "Raising the Curtain"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Friday, September 10, 2004

There's more that goes into picking a film festival Opening Night feature than merely identifying a good movie. The list of ingredients is actually quite daunting. The picture must have mainstream appeal - nothing too artsy, pretentious, or offbeat can be used, since Opening Night is as much a social event as it is the kickoff of hundreds of screenings. On the other hand, the movie has to at least give the impression that it has a little more substance than the average high profile movie. Dumbed-down Hollywood blockbusters (is that term redundant?) need not apply. A few high wattage stars are a must, since one of the functions of Opening Night is to parade easily recognized faces in front of the paparazzi. And, for Toronto, there must be a Canadian connection. Most of the time, the director of the Opening Night feature is Canadian. This year, that's not the case (István Szabó hails from Budapest); however, producer Robert Lantos does call Canada his home.

Given all of these constraints, it's a wonder that any Opening Night feature meets with critical success. But, in the past, titles like The Sweet Herafter and The Barbarian Invasions have gotten reviewers and general festival goers talking and marveling. Such will not be the reaction to the 2004 Opener, Being Julia. With Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons on hand to smile at the cameras, the film boasts a couple of A-list stars. Unfortunately, once the star power stops shining and the lights go down, the movie itself succeeds in underwhelming. The pre-screening hype, which includes all sorts of pretty (long) speeches and obligatory ovations, dwarfs the reality. Being Julia is neither a stinker nor a failure, but it is a disappointment when viewed as a whole.

István Szabó's picture is based on a novella entitled "Theater" by W. Somerset Maugham. Not having read the source material, I can't speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation. But I can say that Being Julia is one of the most uneven affairs I have watched in a theater this year. It's like two movies that have been inelegantly grafted together. Maybe Szabó should have taken the Quentin Tarantino route and divided him movie into two volumes. The second half of Being Julia is easily good enough to redeem the inferior first half, but the problem is that the audience has to be brought through nearly an hour of sub-par material without losing interest or falling asleep. The conclusion is worth staying around for - but it may be difficult to convince audience members of that as they are slogging through Being Julia's sluggish, soap opera-ish first 50 minutes.

The film, which takes place in London during the 1930s, focuses on theater legend Julia Lambert (Annette Bening), a 50-ish actress who is still playing the parts of women in their late 20s and early 30s. Julia is tired of acting, bored in her marriage to director Michael Gaslin (Jeremy Irons), and looking for something to perk things up. She finds inspiration, and sex, in a young, gold-digging American named Tom Fennell (Shaun Evans). Michael is aware of the affair, but doesn't mind, as long as it helps his wife's acting. It's when her performance on-stage begins to falter that he becomes angry. Enter Tom's girlfriend, up-and-coming thespian Avie Crichton (Lucy Punch), who nabs a plum role in Julia's newest play. Avie has designs on becoming the "next Julia," but the current one has other ideas, and carefully plots her revenge.

The second half of the film owes more than a nod to All About Eve, and, although it would seemingly be unfair to compare Annette Bening to Bette Davis, Bening is surprisingly up to the challenge. If Sony Pictures Classics can generate enough buzz surrounding Being Julia, it's not a stretch to believe that Bening could be in line for an Oscar nomination. Even during the awkwardly paced first half, Bening manges to keep us interested. She plays the film like a farce, but finds the real, three-dimensional character in Julia. And, when she takes the stage to one-up everyone who has screwed her, Bening shines like a beacon on a moonless night, eclipsing everyone else. This is what acting is all about.

As weak as the entire May/December romance is, the film's skewering of theater and its comedic twisting of the knife allow Being Julia to build momentum. The film is like a race in which the runner stumbles out of the blocks, starts slowly, then builds speed before racing across the finish line. For Julia, the stage isn't just her job; it's her life. Her old teacher (Michael Gambon in a ghostly portrayal) constantly informs her that "Your only reality is the theater." And her son observes, "You have a performance for everyone. I don't think you exist. Even the things you say are secondhand." As a result, Julia is not content to simply fade away and make room for younger, more ambitious actresses to take her place. She intends to fight for her position in the spotlight, and what a delicious knockout punch she delivers!

Being Julia is a difficult film to review. Because I so enjoyed the last 45 minutes, I'm tempted to recommend it. The problem is that you have to sit through an hour to get to the worthwhile parts. And, during the interminable setup, the only bright spots are Bening and occasional snippets of witty dialogue. One can argue that the last act wouldn't have worked without the introduction, but it's Szabó's job as director to put the early portions of the film together in a way that will keep the audience awake and involved. He doesn't do that, and that places Being Julia on the cusp as far as a recommendation is concerned. Toronto has opened with better and worse in the past. The festival organizers have nothing to be ashamed of here (nor anything to be overly proud of). They have done their job by delivering a high-profile movie with a couple of stars who can smile and wave as they walk down the red carpet. Let's just hope this isn't the highlight of the festival.

Now it's time to start drinking coffee...

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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