Based on the last years and concerts of Judy Garland’s life, Judy is one of the most talked about films going into this awards season thanks to the starring turn by Renée Zellweger in the titular role. Biopics have always been a popular go-to for actors who want to subvert casting types and show their range and this seems to be no exception for Zellweger who foregoes her famed reputation as the comedic gem in Bridget Jones. As an avid fan of Judy Garland, I was really interested to see whether Zellweger pulls it off and it truly is a film that revolves around the performance and acts as an Oscar lull for the actress who has mainly stayed out of the spotlight for years. Directed by Rupert Goold, a director renowned for his theatre work with a script written by Tom Edge based on the musical The End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, Judy is the heartbreaking reality of a faded star who longs to stay in the spotlight but is plighted by a lifetime of abuse which finally catches up with her in the form drug and alcohol abuse. Flashbacks to her youth which see Darci Shaw play a young Garland (superbly I might add) in which she is constantly berated for her appearance whilst also experiencing harassment, forced drug use and general anxieties in terms of how she must eat and act at all times.
Goold’s direction is intensely focused on its star. When we see Judy perform for the first time, the camera never leaves her, instead focusing on each movement and mannerism that Zellweger conjures up. There is a distinct use of palette used in the film as the Hollywood scenes of Judy’s youth are bright and playful whereas the London setting for her concerts in the present day is darker and drearier. The illusion of fame has long since faded which Goold brings across. The decision to bring in events that didn’t happen in real life is something that I am unsure about. A life as eventful as Judy Garland’s isn’t in need of any fictionalisation and I feel that the inclusion of these scenes detracts from the film. The main fictionalised event was the inclusion of gay couple, Dan (Andy Nyman) and Stan (Daniel Cerqueira) who wait for Judy at the stage door and have dinner with her in their flat. I understand the inclusion of these characters as it is a way to show Judy’s support for the gay community and the performances from Nyman and Cerqueira are heartfelt and sincere. My only concern is the ending scene in which they start a singalong to “Over the Rainbow” when Judy breaks down on stage. This event didn’t happen and the effect that it had as the theatre audience all joined in made it a bit cringey to watch, knowing that this didn’t happen in reality. Judy’s longing to be remembered and her final lines do pack a punch though as you feel the impending fate that awaits her as she dies 6 months after the concerts. There are plenty of moments in the film, particularly the Hollywood scenes, that are fantastically shot and Goold’s experience as a theatre director comes into play. His focus on the character’s expressions and use of light and shade is phenomenal and it’s exciting to see what he picks as his next cinematic project.
Now onto the star of the show. Renée Zellweger is nothing less than stellar as Judy. The Judy she plays is one that looks back on past fame and fortune whilst dealing with the reality that she does not have the same financial luxury or influence she once did. The only way she is able to keep herself financially afloat is by performing in London where her fan base is loyal. Garland is a character with many layers and Zellweger manages to communicate this with a melancholy glance. The physicality of the role may not seem demanding at first but particularly when performing, you see the physical struggles Judy has. Zellweger’s Judy is one who cares about her impact and legacy, wanting to ensure that she will be remembered. Her motivation is ensuring financial security so she can spend time with her children who are living in the US with their father, Judy’s ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). There are so many scenes that are captivating and it’s mainly when she is on stage. The passion that Zellweger throws into the role is spilled out heart and soul into the songs. Offstage, Judy is disabled by her mental health and increased alcohol consumption. Her anxiety overrides everything causing a huge lack of confidence and yet she longs for validation and the applause. Her refusal to allow her younger children to enter the world of showbiz only demonstrates the hatred for her own upbringing and eventual rise to stardom. She longs for the normal life but can never truly have one now.
The supporting cast is led by Michael Gambon and Jessie Buckley as theatre owner, Bernard Delfont and assistant Rosalyn Wilder, respectively. It’s always nice to see veteran actors acting alongside rising stars and both do a wonderful job. At the end of the day, their roles are to support Zellweger’s starring turn. This is a film that has an intense focus on Judy. There are very few scenes that don’t have Judy in them meaning that this makes it hard for other people to truly shine because she does grab the attention. But as I said, in a film like this, we’re not meant to focus on these supporting roles. That being said, there is a scene between Judy and Rosalyn that is particularly fiery when the latter tries to encourage the former to go onstage. Judy lashes out and claims that Rosalyn doesn’t care about her which to an extent is true. She may seem that she does care but at the end of the day, Judy’s wellbeing comes second to her concerts. Rosalyn’s job is to ensure that Judy makes the concerts on time.
Judy is a film with its flaws but much like the film’s subject, it certainly puts on a show. Zellweger has made herself a serious contender this awards season and definitely could walk away with Oscar number two. I think it’s a film worth watching just for the performance but the direction should not be overlooked either. In a post #metoo world, it’s horrific and tragic to see how Judy was treated from a young age as she was verbally and physically abused and forced to fit an ideal that she did not naturally conform to. She clearly despised and reviled any attempts to change her and yet was forced to hate her background. Comparing the two Judys we see in the film, we see that culmination of abuse from all angles in Zellweger’s.
What did you think of Judy? Let me know in the comments below!