Monday 14 October 2019

Film Review: Judy

Renne Zellweger delivers a tour de force performance as screen symbol Judy Garland in Rupert Goold's biopic, Judy.

Set in 1969, Judy charts Judy Garland's struggles with money, alcohol, prescription drugs and stage fright.

Following her divorce to her fourth husband, Garland is faced with an awkward decision – she can stay in Los Angeles, surfing from hotel suite to hotel suite at the expense of her children's education, or she can take up a lucrative offer to perform a series of shows in London.

The latter would see her separated from her children, but ultimately give her the financial freedom to give them a proper home. The only problem is, Garland's tumultuous career and personal life has left her struggling to sleep, stay sober and, crucially, sing.

Judy colours within the lines of the conventional biopic, with all the ups and downs, trials and tribulations you've come to expect – the film hops back and forth between Garland's strife-ridden forties and her equally as challenging childhood on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Groomed for the stage from a young age, every minute detail of Garland's life is controlled by MGM's overbearing boss – from taking pills to help her stay awake to limiting her diet to little more than soup. It's not hard to see where her adulthood issues came from...

Cutting through the humdrum plotting, however, is Zellweger. Playing a historical figure can go either way for an actor, with Christin Bale's fearsome Dick Cheney and Rami Malek's atrocious Freddie Mercury illustrating both ends of the spectrum in recent times.

Zellweger is simply spellbinding as Garland. She disappears into the role by reshaping her voice, her posture and her face – it's easily one of the best performances of the year and her career. Behind the jaded cynicism of an ageing icon, Zellweger's Garland clings onto the one thing she treasures more than anything else – her children. You feel her pain as she once again stares down at the promoter's tour schedule, with Garland's every waking moment once again controlled by nothing more than her commercial potential.

Shaking like a leaf at the thought of performing in front of a sellout crowd, a soaring moment of triumph where Garland overcomes her self-doubt to bring the house down is all down to Zellweger's towering vocals and movement – and it's all captured in the one shot. The performances – which Zellweger sings herself – see the film spark into life.

Elsewhere, Judy just goes through the motions. Finn Wittrock plays Mickey Deans, an English nightclub owner who grows to care for Judy during her tour, while Rufus Sewell plays sneering ex-husband Sidney Luft. Both are fairly one-note characters, with Tom Edge's screenplay moving them through the narrative like chess pieces designed for one thing and one thing only.

But I dare anyone to not be moved by the rousing finale where Garland begs her audience to "never forget her", or an emotional interlude where she spends an evening visiting the home of two ardent fans. It's in these moments that director Rupert Goold's film shines, and where Zellweger's contribution cannot be understated.

The Verdict: 7.5/10

A remarkable performance surrounded by an unremarkable film, Renee Zellweger single-handedly makes this film a must-see. I wouldn't be surprised to see her nominated for (and maybe even win) an Oscar, but the rest of Judy is your bang average, by-the-numbers biopic.

Judy is in cinemas across Australia from this Thursday 17 October.

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