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A star is (re)born – ‘Judy’

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One of the staples of awards season is the biopic. For whatever reason, we’ve collectively decided that watching actors portray real people is more impressive than portraying fictional characters. Sometimes that’s true … and sometimes it isn’t. There are a lot of pitfalls that come with representing a living breathing human. Sometimes, good intentions give way to mishaps. Other times, you get something that’s middling. And sometimes, you get something unforgettable.

In “Judy,” Renee Zellweger gives us the latter.

The film, which tells the story of entertainment icon Judy Garland’s 1968 trip to London, isn’t any kind of wheel reinvention. Directed by Rupert Goold from a screenplay adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s stageplay “End of the Rainbow,” it’s pretty standard stuff. It’s a moment-in-time biopic as opposed to a birth-to-death biopic (though we do get some “Wizard of Oz”-era flashbacks, aiming to capture one small stretch of the subject’s life.

What elevates “Judy” is Zellweger’s work in the titular role. She is wholly committed in a way we don’t often see, giving the sort of transformative performance that requires most actors to shift their weight by 50 pounds or slather on the prosthetics … and she does it with a haircut. She inhabits the icon, warts and all. Hell, she even does her own singing, which is a major flex no matter who you are.

And it works. All of it.

We first see Judy Garland standing in the kitchen of a supper club alongside her children, preparing to go onstage with them and perform their family act for just a few dollars. When they return to their hotel after the show, they learn that their room has been released due to nonpayment. Left with no other choice, Judy takes the kids to their father Sidney Luft’s (Rufus Sewell, TV’s “The Man in the High Castle”) house; he demands custody of the children so that he might give them some stability. Adrift, Judy makes her way to a party, where she meets a club owner named Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”); he’s immediately infatuated.

After that night, Judy realizes that she has to make money to keep her kids. She’s been deemed unreliable by every reputable outlet in the U.S., so she agrees to a lucrative booking in the U.K. The gig – a five-week run at Talk of the Town financed by Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon, “King of Thieves”) – promises to be profitable enough to correct her financial woes.

But as her provided assistant/handler Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley, TV’s “Chernobyl”) and bandleader Burt (Royce Pierreson, TV’s “Wanderlust”) soon learn, there are reasons that Judy has been deemed unreliable. Her drinking and pill-popping lead to late curtains and onstage mishaps – all interspersed with magnificent, breathtaking performances.

Along the way, we’re offered glimpses into Judy’s past. We see young Judy (Darci Shaw, TV’s “The Bay”) during the making of and immediate aftermath of “The Wizard of Oz,” with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery, “The Wife”) and his underlings manipulating and emotionally abusing the youngster into the beginnings of her addictions.

Judy’s issues are constant, and they’re only exacerbated when Mickey shows up in London. He’s all sweet talk and big ideas, serving as one more distraction to a performer who doesn’t need another. And despite the efforts of so many, Judy’s engagement – like so many other things in her sad life – begins to fall apart.

Like many other biopics of its ilk, “Judy” is unafraid to engage in some flexibility with regards to the timeline of events portrayed in the film. It’s nothing egregious – just the cost of doing business when you’re making a movie like this one. It is a surprisingly bleak story, one that holds its subject up as a sort of martyr to showbiz. No one familiar with Garland’s story will be surprised that it is sad, but just how sad might take some viewers aback.

There’s a sharp sense of time and place, a period setting rendered beautifully by Goold and company. The look of the thing is appropriate, managing to evoke the era in which it is set while also maintaining its modernity. Occasionally, things get a little too precious. Ultimately, it’s a movie that would be little more than OK without Zellweger’s performance.

But that’s just it – nothing really matters except Zellweger’s performance. It’s a magnificent piece of work, a fully committed and challenging portrayal of a flawed yet fabulous woman. Performing as a performer is tough, particularly one as iconic as Judy Garland; it requires utter fearlessness. And that fearlessness is what Zellweger brings to the table. She sings, she moves, she embraces the highs and lows – it’s a gamut-running turn that will warrant all of the awards season attention it will almost certainly receive.

The ensemble is decent enough – Wolfrock and Buckley have the most to do; everyone else does their jobs – but the truth is that they don’t matter. Not really. This movie is all about Judy Garland. And hence, all about Renee Zellweger.

“Judy” is a fine movie featuring an exceptional lead performance. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking or exciting about the film itself, but Zellweger’s performance alone is well worth the price of admission.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 16:37

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