Liv Ullman’s version of Strindberg’s classic play MISS JULIE is an incredible feature with powerful performances to match.
I’ve been seduced. That’s the word that came to mind when leaving MISS JULIE, director Liv Ullman’s screen version of the classic play by August Strindberg.
An “incredible new feature” I tweeted as I left the screening which also afforded me the honour of hearing Ullman describe the process of bringing this tragic tale to life in a post-show Q&A. It’s always been a difficult and challenging play to pull off, the heightened emotion of the story meaning that not only do you need actors of exceptional skill who are ready to bear gut-wrenchingly raw feelings to the audience but you need to build the sequence of events that begins one balmy midsummer late afternoon and ends the following morning, has resulted in tragedy for all concerned.
The acting is first and foremost what bowls you over. In one of the finest performances I’ve seen this year, Jessica Chastain imbues Julie with a fierceness and fragility that leaves you breathless. She is the haughty daughter of the landowning gentry in Northern Ireland (where Ullman has moved the action from its native Sweden) at the end of the 19th century.
Bored in her listless life, she searches for any tiny distraction that will yield some excitement. This centres around tormenting her father’s valet John and the maidservant Kathleen, usually playfully you imagine but on this particular day, it has a more desperate edge. Julie mistakenly thinks she is above them but over the course of the story, she comes to realise they are both forces to be reckoned with.
John, played by Colin Farrell in possibly the finest work of his career (and that’s saying something when you’re putting it in the same class as Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges), is a man with ideas and ambition. Kathleen, his lover, is a realist and a woman of faith and integrity. Played by the matchless Samantha Morton, we see she knows her place in society’s structure, carefully keeping a respectful distance from Julie and her aristocratic world. John, unfortunately, cannot. Having first glimpsed Julie when he was a small boy having snuck into the estate’s garden, he now allows himself to be drawn closer and closer to her, letting Julie order him around at her whim.
Farrell’s quivering cheek when Chastain towers above him to pick something out of his eye is wonderful and we see the indecision flash across his face as to whether to overstep the line between servant and mistress. Later, when he takes command of the situation, his anger displays years of frustration and suppression until he’s once again cowed to answer his master’s bell. It’s a brilliant piece of acting.
As this is a tragedy, of course, John makes that fatal step across the class divide and the events that then transpire place you on an emotional see-saw as you watch these three characters implode. Some critics have said they thought the acting in MISS JULIE is over the top but I disagree 100%. When you have stakes as high as these, you have to watch actors really go extremes to meet what Strindberg had envisioned – a life and death battle for the survival of the fittest. What’s wrong with seeing no-holds-barred emotions that are uncomfortable to watch? It means you walk away at the end having had a truly visceral experience, which is hopefully what all good art does.
I’ve become a huge admirer of Jessica Chastain. She is one of my absolute favourite actors to watch right now – everything she does is terrific. From Take Shelter to Interstellar, from A Most Violent Year to my personal favourite Zero Dark Thirty, I’ve been blown away by what she brings to the screen and just when you think she can’t be any better, gives the performance that she does here. She’s really something.
Beyond these performances, as we watch the devastated Julie’s fate, I felt Liv Ullman had succeeded in presenting the best version of the play I’ve yet seen. The camerawork is clean and unfussy, as is the lighting and Ullman has made some quite bold choices in how she’s shaped the piece, adding scenes (we have a prologue and an epilogue), a few new lines of dialogue and in allowing Morton’s character more screen time, Kathleen becomes very much another victim of what takes place.
Strindberg was criticised for being a misogynist, at the time he was writing and in modern-day productions and this piece of work was acutely focused on in this regard. You feel Ullman wants to rebalance the piece, giving Julie more of a backstory for being the way she is, rather than just presenting her as a cruel and manipulative woman. She’s helped in realising this by the quality of her performers but all kudos to Ullman for casting these particular actors to such stunning effect. It’s an exacting drama to watch but also a deeply rewarding one when you have powerful performances such as these at its centre.