For a film about a performer, Judy starts with a brilliant apparent break of the fourth wall. I struggle to remember a film with a more apt beginning. The structure of the film is further used to great effect by balancing the enrapturing beginning with an emotive end; it would not surprise me to see the odd tear shed as the lights come up.
Judy covers Garland’s (played by Renée Zellweger) 1968-9 sell-out concert run in London, yet provides a far wider-reaching examination of performance as well as Garland’s psyche. Starting with Garland’s fraught relationship with her ex-husband and children, it gives hope that London can bring a revival of her fortunes. But of course, London is no city paved in gold, and so one can see Garland’s emotionally complex reaction to both great successes and stygian failure. However, it does not fall into the trap of overly focusing on the subject of the biopic. For it acts also as a damning criticism of the entertainment industry and reflection of changing social mores – with some beautifully fleshed out minor characters.
In my view, the best moments of the film (and closest approach to the quotidian reality of Garland’s character) are provided by the minor characters Stan (Daniel Cerqueira) and Dan (Andy Nyman). Although these two are fictional, they act as a verisimilitudinous representation of Garland’s many LGBTQ+ fans, and this is one of those instances in which narrative veracity has to be sacrificed to give a true representation of the society at the time. As they have to explain why they missed one of Garland’s London dates, and thus explain the U.K.’s barbaric anti-gay laws of the time; any pathos for Garland is dwarfed in understanding the personal cost of the U.K.’s deeply flawed legal system and reprehensible social attitudes, which I wish I could write are fully a thing of the past. Yet, this is not a film of unrepentant bleakness, for one scene of Dan and Stan includes one of the funniest episodes I have ever seen regarding eggs. Indeed, I was still hearing utters of outrage at what crimes against omelettes can be permitted as I was walking into the pub 100 yards away from the cinema.
The dominance of blueish greens and orangey browns, coupled with the detailed costume designs, visually evoke the late 60’s setting in a subtle yet undeniable way. However, the use of colour is not only limited to cementing the biopic into its period. Bluish tones dominate in scenes full of pathos as Garland despairs and are still more aptly used to show her loneliness. For even on stage, with all-around clad in warm orange hues, Garland is painted in cooler blue light as her wan skin echoes her inner pain.
Zellweger’s performance is the high point of the film. She magisterially embodies the complex darkness of the role and transforms her voice to take on the rich depths of Garland’s. Yet, her stellar performance is not limited to taking on a timbre, for she encapsulates the physicality of Garland too: small and delicate with an almost avine face, yet still, she has a power that can, when on form, dominate a stage. The fragility of Garland’s character is thrown into sharp relief by the solid and somewhat reserved characters of Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) and band leader Burt (Royce Pierreson). Nonetheless, the fantastic way in which Zellweger seems to morph herself into a reincarnated Garland makes nearly all the other performances seem somewhat lacking in comparison.
This sense pervades the film. One is left amazed by Zellweger’s performance, and the film generally rings true, but it does not consistently deliver the quality that it could have given. The flashbacks are slightly overdone in comparison to Zellweger’s on point balance between expression and subtly. Judy could also have considered its examination of drug issues more closely. The ubiquity of pills throughout the film hammers home the attitudes to drugs at the time, however, it does not seem to give enough thought to the wider issues of the link between drugs and the entertainment industry – especially how this relationship can be glamorised. Yet, it would be wrong to say that this is not worth a watch – as well as Zellweger there are a host of other well-known actors giving solid performances. It is also almost impossible to have watched the film without having considered a range of social issues, many of which are just as germane now as they were in the late 60’s. This is done strongly enough to register with even the most casual viewer, yet never tips into lecturing.
Although Judy is a pathos laden biopic, comedy does have its place. On multiple occasions there were repeated laughs – though that might have been due to the slightly sozzled middle-aged audience I watched it with. Ultimately, it is a heart-warming story of a mother longing to be loved and to be able to give her children the love she wishes she had.
– Ed Bedford