A flossy star vehicle if ever one existed, “Being Julia” provides Annette Bening with the opportunity to play a flamboyant stage diva who cannily wreaks vengeance on three people in her life: the callow young cad who’s seduced and abandoned her, the ambitious young actress who’s replaced her in his affections and who intends to upstage her to boot, and her own husband, who’s betrayed her by having an affair with the younger woman. And she does it in the most suitable fashion, given her profession: at a public performance of a play, which she turns around to her own advantage as an instrument of poetic justice. It’s a plum role–showy and flamboyant–and Bening takes advantage of all the opportunities it offers, from extravagantly theatrical posing and flights of romantic abandon to self-pitying crying fits and bouts of cunning calculation.
Bening plays Julia Lambert, the reigning star of the London theatre in the late 1930s. Starring in a series of triumphs produced by her husband Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons) and the flighty Dolly de Vries (Miriam Margolyes), Julia is at the peak of her powers, even if the ghost of her revered mentor Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon) must periodically appear to her to criticize her overacting and warn her when she’s making a fool of herself. At the moment the film opens, Julia in is some distress: she loudly exclaims that she’s exhausted and needs a rest, and her long-time aristocratic admirer Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood) announces that he must break off their friendship because of the rumors. (Julia and Michael, it quickly becomes apparent, enjoy a quite platonic marriage that allows for a good deal of freedom on her part.) But her attitude changes when Michael introduces her to a young fan–an impoverished American named Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), who soon becomes her lover. The trouble arises when she actually falls for the boy and not only begins supporting him financially but grows jealous of him, even as he takes up with a manipulative young actress named Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch), who might have stepped out of the pages of something called “All About Avice.” Julia goes berserk over this turn of events, especially after Avice sets her sights on Michael, too, but with the appropriate encouragement from Jimmie and Charles, who–predictably–turns out to be gay but reliable, the grande dame bounces back and plots Avice’s on-stage destruction at the premiere of the new play they’re doing together–a piece written by nervous, clumsy Walter Gibbs (Maury Chaykin). Michael and Tom, suffering through the evening from the audience, also get their just deserts in the process; and inevitably Julia’s scene-stealing improvisations make the play a roaring success.
There’s nothing remotely convincing about “Being Julia.” It aims to be nothing more than a well-appointed crowd-pleaser, especially for audiences of a certain age and gender (like its heroine), and whatever modest entertainment value it possesses goes no deeper than that. Nonetheless one has to applaud Bening’s vivacity in a role that’s much larger than life, even if her extremes of joy (complete with helpless giggling) and sorrow (marked by profuse weeping) are way over-the-top. But Julia is, after all, always on, so to speak. Irons contributes an elegantly controlled turn as the stiff-upper-lip Michael, and Greenwood a pleasantly amiable one as Charles. Evans, however, is a fatally stiff and charmless Tom–it’s impossible to perceive what Julia is supposed to see in him–and Punch is too broad as the ambitious Avice. Surprisingly, so are the usually reliable Chaykin as the klutzy author and Margolyes as the unrestrained co-producer. But there are compensations in the rest of the supporting cast. Juliet Stevenson is marvelously tart as Julia’s perceptive dresser and general aide-de-camp, and Tom Sturridge contributes a delicately layered turn as the actress’ wiser-than-his-years son. (In fact, one would like to have seen more of the mother-son relationship, which is a lot more interesting than her fling with Tom.) Gambon, moreover, has a field day as the loquacious, histrionic Langton, and it’s great to see the legendary Rosemary Harris and Rita Tushingham in their brief scenes as Julia’s mother and aunt during her visit to her Jersey Island home. “Being Julia” is a visual treat, too, with mostly Hungarian locales standing in quite nicely for British ones and a lush production design by Luciana Arrighi, lovingly captured by Lajos Koltai’s cinematography. One does miss, however, the last ounce of charm and comic vibrancy in the direction of Istvan Szabo, who usually deals with much weightier material. A fluffier, lighter touch is easy to imagine, and under his hand what should be gossamer often has a slightly leaden feel. But at least it hasn’t been fitted with cement shoes.
“Being Julia” is based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, and it’s as much an old-fashioned diva showcase as “Rain,” another of Maugham’s most famous pieces, or any of the musty plays that Julia Lambert performs on the boards in the course of it. It’s not terribly well constructed, and it isn’t remotely compelling–indeed, under Szabo’s handling it’s a more flaccid piece than it should be, with a denouement that, even in the fantasy world it creates, strains credulity beyond the breaking point when played, as here, without the ideal effervescence. But as a glossy, brainless divertissement, as devoid of substance as the lives of the cardboard characters it’s about, it will serve. And it will probably give Bening another chance at that Oscar she’s never quite managed to win.