Miss Julie (2014)

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*. 130 minutes. Good grief.
*. Strindberg’s play is a tight little one-act piece, all taking place on the same set. Alf Sjöberg’s 1951 version expanded the story quite a bit, including a lot of extra back story, and still came in at 90 minutes.
*. The extra length doesn’t help. This is a play where the action takes place in a whirlwind. Here it develops too slowly, and after half an hour or so I felt that everything was being underlined too heavily, with many of the scenes excessively drawn out.
*. What makes the long running time even more remarkable is how much of the play has been cut. After the opening credits only three actors are even seen. The Midsummer Night revelers are all gone. There are no flashbacks, and almost all references to Julie’s mother are deleted. For Liv Ullman (who gets the main writing credit for adapting Strindberg) to have cut the play this much and still added 40 minutes to Sjöberg’s film is startling.
*. The resulting film is a paradox. On the one hand it’s a very personal interpretation of the play by someone who has had a long relationship with it and understands it well. But it’s also very much a filmed play, and a traditional one, with none of Sjöberg’s inventive camera work.

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*. In being a filmed play a lot more focus is put on the three leads, who are all excellent but were not what I was expecting.
*. Jessica Chastain seems more neurotic than in heat. When she screams to John about how her “womb cried out for your sperm” I don’t believe her. I get the feeling that she’s more a romantic dreamer than a real sexual submissive, her gradual dishevelment giving way to a final turn as a Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. This is a fatal sense of self for her to have, as Strindberg’s play is about as anti-romantic as you can get.
*. Colin Farell’s John is a weakling, and we can’t believe for a minute that he’d make a go for it as a Lake Como hotelier. Farrell seems too pretty for the part, but that may also go with the way he’s imagined here, as a sort of toy boy ping-ponging between women who dominate him while he whines about his miserable station in life. Is this a woman’s revenge on a notoriously misogynist play? I suspect that may have played into it.
*. Samantha Morton is great here, in a role that Ullman really expands. Kristine/Kathleen has always seemed to me to be an underutilized part in the play, and Strindberg even had her fall asleep on stage as a way of making her disappear. In this telling of the tale she’s more of an equal to Miss Julie, opposing her mistress’s romanticism with stolid common sense and peasant faith.

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*. The sets are bare and oversized. The Vermeer lighting in the kitchen in the final movement is nice. The one misstep was letting Julie and John go outside and find that pretty tree to sit under. That looked phoney, and felt unnecessary, as though we were just moving to a different location to show this is a movie and not a theatrical piece. It also takes us into a more romantic landscape, which is the fatal tug I mentioned drawing at Julie but which may also be pulling Ullman along as well. I’m not sure how conscious Ullman was of this.
*. I’m always wary of criticizing a movie for being too slow. I feel like I’m turning into a product of the attention-deficit generation, raised on music videos, video games, and the Internet (browsing rather than reading, texting rather than writing). But the thing is I do like a lot of long, slow movies very much and I still thought this one dragged. I think that despite its staginess it’s done very well, and Ullman’s choices on where to direct her emphasis are perfectly defensible. But her Miss Julie finally seems more limited, smaller, less open to interpretation than I wanted her to be. From the first time we see her we get the feeling she’s already given up a bit on life. The rest is a slow unwinding.

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