Review – Judy
Renee Zellweger’s performance captivates through this warm, but honest portrait of the tragic, but adored, and talented star
The film Judy is a 2019 biopic of Judy Garland directed by Rupert Goold, based on a stage show called ‘The End of the Rainbow’ by Peter Quilter, and starring Renee Zellweger in the title role.
As the film opens, we see a young Judy Garland essentially being offered a deal with the devil. Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery) assures her that even with all of her faults (like her looks and weight), her voice is so good that she can become a star in the Wizard of Oz, or she can live a normal life like all of the other bland girls out in the world. Through this moment the proposed root of her demons later in life is quickly laid out to the audience.
The outcome is well known, she became a global superstar through 1939’s Wizard of Oz, and in doing so, waived the chance of a normal childhood. Instead her youth was spent making movies, musical performances, youthful dates that were actually just planned press opportunities and birthday parties filmed in advance and ultimately set on a path of self destruction.
As the film sets off, we find Garland in 1968 – close to financial ruin, battling drink and assorted pills, and in the midst of a custody battle for her two youngest children – who she has been performing with on stage for small fees having become ‘unreliable and uninsurable’ to the American entertainment industry.
In a quest to earn enough to solve her money worries, and set herself and children up for the future, she takes an offer for a number of performances in London where she is still revered (her reaction to this is that it’s because the ‘English are insance’). The film centres on these ‘Talk of the Town’ performances and her situation throughout, including a blossoming love affair with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock).
Supporting roles include Sir Michael Gambon, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell and Andy Nyman. Buckley’s and Nyman’s performances especially stood out to me evoking a sense of realisation to the situation, and representing the adoration of her fans (especially within the LGBT community) respectively.
There is a genuine sense of love for her that permeates the film, even whilst being very direct in acknowledging her flaws and failings by this point. We see her having to be nearly dragged to the stage, and vanishing into alcohol fuelled hazes in times of emotional difficulty. However, the film works hard to offer a number of flashbacks to earlier in her career as a means of framing some explanation and context to the star’s situation.
Ultimately, Zellweger’s performance is reason enough to see the film. She is remarkable throughout the film, especially when on the stage. She holds the attention of the audience throughout and has a huge presence on the screen.
When I saw Asif Kapadia’s 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary ‘Amy’, I spent the majority of the film wishing for someone to intervene and help her out of the rapid downward spiral the star was in. It is to the strength of Zellweger’s compelling performance then, that I felt the same in this film, willing for someone to intervene to rescue her from her destructive situation.
There is a moment early on in the film, where Garland is in a rehearsal space, in a huge building, empty except for the piano playing band leader and her assistant. She steps out on a marked out space where the stage should be. The moment feels representative of the theme of the film. The representation of the star as alone even when theoretically surrounded, with this taking it to a more literal demonstration of this. Later we see her surrounded by flowers from fans but crying which too evokes this sense.
This theme weaves through the film and is a core to the film, positioning her as a tragic, problem riddled, but still a supremely talented and loved figure. The film takes an openly dark view of the industry that raised her, but acknowledges her youthful desire and willingness to be a part of it, with her brief moments of defiance as her only available response to its overpowering control and disregard for her wellbeing.
The film has a remarkable lead performance and is a moving representation to a star who in some way was destroyed by the thing that she was most compelled by – a need for her audience.