starring Annette Bening, Catherine Charlton, Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon
screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham
directed by István Szabó
by Walter Chaw Shrill and unlikeable, Being Julia is reasonably assessed as an at least thematically faithful adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's soulless novel Theatre, just as it's fair to compare it to the acclaimed Mephisto, director István Szabó's other condemnation of the stage. But that doesn't mean it's any good. Annette Bening plays Julia Lambert, a grand dame of London's West End accurately labelled a cold, evil bitch by her emotionally-unavailable actor husband, Michael (Jeremy Irons). Julia beds down with young Tom (Shaun Evans), who in turn beds down with ingénue Avice (Lucy Punch); in a fit of pique, Julia sets out to destroy Avice. The idea is that poor monster Julia is incapable of separating reality from the stage--setting the stage, as it were, for a film that addresses layers of sign and signifier through a climactic play-within-a-play-within-a-film. But it's all done with so much spite and so little self-awareness that Julia is actually made the hero in some kind of klutzy, pre-Blitz version of The First Wives Club. Older women deserve to be humiliated for sleeping with younger men and young women deserve to be humiliated by older women. Only the men win, an important thing to remember when this male-dominated production is brought up in conversation as an example of a woman's film. Lesbian and gay subplots abound, mainly for the purposes of giggling at their whimsical perversity (there's more giggling in Being Julia than there is at a Japanese schoolgirl convention), and no other middlebrow peeve goes unpunished either when writers and the expressionist theatre are mocked for the bemusement of what the picture refers to as the jackassery of the unwashed, anti-intellectual public. Originally published: October 19, 2004.