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Sympathy and warmth beneath 'Julia's' comic gloss

Filmmakers bring depth and humor to writer W. Somerset Maugham's 1930s tale of a stage star bored with her career.

October 15, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

In the scintillating "Being Julia," Annette Bening had to have thought a lot about being Annette, for she is playing a woman who, like herself, is a star actress, wife and mother. Bening's glorious Julia Lambert is the toast of London's West End and the year is 1938, but the challenges she faces are timeless. Beyond what it means to be an actress, Bening reveals what it means to be a woman -- or for that matter anyone who has enjoyed a measure of professional and personal accomplishment -- but now finds herself in midlife crisis.

Director Istvan Szabo and writer Ronald Harwood (both long drawn to exploring the lives of performers), Bening and a lustrous ensemble cast have brought to vivid life W. Somerset Maugham's 1937 novella "Theatre."

They have done so with such verve and panache that this film can never be described as merely a romp or a star vehicle -- even though of course it is in a sense those things, and splendidly so. But it is so much more because the filmmakers have brought such breadth and depth to the material. Everyone counts in this film, not just Julia Lambert.

Julia has it all -- beauty, talent, fame, a handsome husband, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), an impresario who shrewdly guides her career, a loving but clear-eyed teenage son (Thomas Sturridge), a luxurious London mansion. Miriam Margolyes' doting Dolly de Vries, Julia's and Michael's producing partner; Evie (Juliet Stevenson), her loyal and discreet but truth-telling maid; and Bruce Greenwood's Lord Charles, a devoted gay friend, provide a loving, well-established support system. In moments of distress she even can summon in her imagination the specter of her late plain-speaking theatrical mentor (Michael Gambon).

Yet she has grown tired of her current long-running hit. "Everything is so tedious. I want something to happen," she says. A woman who acts as easily off-stage as on, Julia has long been shielded from reality's harder edges, but she cannot halt the passing of time. At 45 she is at the peak of her career but is suddenly struck by the thought that nothing but decline lies ahead.

When she and Michael extend hospitality to a young American (Shaun Evans), who professes to be Julia's greatest fan, she is ripe for seduction. But when Evans' Tom becomes a notable example of proving to be not what he seems, Julia is propelled on a course of self-discovery that teaches her to distinguish between the reality of the theater and that of actual life -- just as in real life World War II is about to intrude in a more brutal way. On a comical note, Julia finds herself playing Margo Channing to the Eve Harrington of an ambitious young actress (Lucy Punch).

The period settings and costumes are suitably sumptuous, with Julia's elegant ivory-hued boudoir decorated in the timeless style of Maugham's celebrated interior decorator wife, Syrie.

Surrounded by several other distinguished actors, such as Maury Chaykin, Sheila McCarthy, Rosemary Harris and Rita Tushingham, Bening spiritedly illuminates the spoiled Julia's emergence from her self-absorbed cocoon. Bening's Julia can be theatrical and self-indulgent but has too much humor ever to lose sympathy.

"Being Julia" is essentially a comedy, at times even farcical, for all its serious resonances, yet in the end Bening's Julia Lambert suggests she has the stuff of such great ladies from the British theater as Gladys Cooper, a famous beauty who, like Lynne Fontanne and many others, learned how to sustain a long and distinguished international career, ever gallantly pressing on.


'Being Julia'

MPAA rating: R for some sexuality

Times guidelines: Suitable for sophisticated older children

Annette Bening...Julia Lambert

Jeremy Irons...Michael Gosselyn

Michael Gambon...Jimmie Langton

Bruce Greenwood...Lord Charles

Miriam Margolyes...Dolly de Vries

Juliet Stevenson...Evie

Shaun Evans...Tom Fennel

Lucy Punch...Avice Crichton

A Sony Pictures Classics release of Serendipity Point Films presentation. Director Istvan Szabo. Producer Robert Lantos. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood; based on the novella "Theatre" by W. Somerset Maugham. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai. Editor Susan Shipton. Music Mychael Danna. Costumes John Bloomfield. Production designer Luciana Arrighi Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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