Director Liv Ullmann is perhaps more famous for her long and illustrious acting career, during which time she served as muse to famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Her performances are, without exaggeration, some of the greatest ever captured on film. Bergman was particularly fascinated by women, and often cast Ullmann as deeply complex characters, such as those in Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, and my personal favourite, Persona. She continues her exploration of this in Miss Julie, with the title character being played by Jessica Chastain. The film is an adaptation of August Strindberg’s play of the same name, but Ullmann moves the setting to 1890s Ireland, and Chastain plays the mercurial and impulsive daughter of an Irish aristocrat. She casts her gaze upon John, the valet, played by Colin Farrell, despite the fact that he is engaged to the cook, Kathleen, played by Samantha Morton. The seemingly disciplined John resists her advances at first, but his resistance breaks down, and he confesses that he has always been in love with her. It was their difference in class which prevented him from pursuing her. Julie seems less as though she is in love, more alone and bored in the manor house, and is looking for a conquest. The two have sex, but afterwards, the tables suddenly turn. The realization of what she’s done hits Julie, and John reveals feelings of deep revulsion for her, having given herself up so easily. It’s the 1890s version of slut-shaming. As the film progresses, the two go from one extreme feeling to another, and the power dynamic shifts back and forth, but they both continue spiralling downwards towards tragedy.
The best thing about this film is certainly the cast. As Julie, Chastain, provides an excellent performance, as she usually does, presenting a range of emotions from haughty, frivolous aristocrat to Lady Macbeth depths of madness. Her expression is her best tool- those soulful eyes speak volumes. I’m not generally a Colin Farrell fan, but his turn as rough small-town Irish valet suits him well, and he’s an excellent sparring partner for Chastain. Even as buttoned up as she is, Samantha Morton’s performance also stands out for its quiet dignity.
The film feels very much like a play that has been filmed. It is exceedingly sparse, the action taking place in essentially two bedrooms and a kitchen, and the three actors mentioned are the only ones in the film to speak of. But if you didn’t know it was a play to begin with, it’s the dialogue that would betray it. The film is unable to break out of that slightly unnatural stage dialogue, and doesn’t feel terribly realistic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I was reminded a lot of Roman Polanski’s recent film Carnage, an adaptation of the hit play God of Carnage, which had all the same hallmarks of a filmed play as Miss Julie has. But Carnage was so vivacious, relevant, and entertaining that I could look past the stage techniques. Miss Julie’s issue is that it doesn’t quite know how to relate to a modern audience. A sexual episode is the climax of the action, so to speak, and serves as our heroine’s downfall. But everyone’s reaction to it, and the lengthy discussions that follow, are so obtuse that it immediately dates it. I spent a while trying to comprehend exactly why Julie was so upset. I mean, I’ve had bad sex, but never the kind of sex I felt I needed to flee the country afterwards. The dialogue and much of the plot is best left in 1888 when it was written. I would have been far more interested had Ullmann (who is also the screenwriter) taken a more modern approach.
The plot and dialogue are weighty, and little else exists to lift the film at all. The tone is exceedingly sombre, and the set design and costumes all conspire to fit that mood as well. Ullmann has even chosen to buttress scenes with Schubert’s rather rigid and upright Piano Trio No. 2 (Kubrick fans might remember that he did the same thing in Barry Lyndon). It all just feels so heavy and incredibly overwrought, and that’s the point to a certain extent, but it doesn’t make viewing an easy or terribly enjoyable experience.
Ultimately, I simply have to question the relevance of it all. Why film Miss Julie? It’s been staged hundreds of times, filmed several times- what does the film have to say to a new audience? What statement is Ullmann trying to make? Themes of class, particularly of love and sex between the classes, are interesting, but are oh so Thomas Hardy and Jane Eyre, and not particularly relevant in 2015. The best relevance I can grasp are the feminist themes, with Julie as a free-spirited woman who does what she pleases and John as the man who resents her for it. The shifting power dynamics are interesting, but not really enough to keep me engaged. The performances are good, and especially if you’re a fan of Jessica Chastain, it might be enough to keep you interested and motivate you to see it. If not, I don’t think you’ll be missing out on much.