JUDY (Rupert Goold). 118 minutes. Opens Friday (September 27). See listing. Rating: NNNN
Judy is, above all, a showcase for Renée Zellweger’s deeply felt and eerily effective performance as Judy Garland in her final months. But it’s also a surprisingly solid film in its own right.
Expanded significantly from Peter Quilter’s play End Of The Rainbow, which I saw during its Broadway run, the film focuses on a series of concerts Garland gave in London in 1968 to try to pay down the debts accumulated by her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).
Separated from her children in L.A. and unable to sleep thanks to a drug regimen forced upon her when she was a child star, the former Wizard Of Oz actor starts boozing and messing up, testing the patience of her buttoned-down assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), and theatre owner Bernard Delfont (an underused Michael Gambon).
Things temporarily pick up when the emotionally needy Garland is visited by the charismatic, irresponsible Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who soon after becomes her fifth and final husband. And in one of the film’s most poignant subplots, she forges a touching friendship with an older gay couple who are long-time fans.
But ghosts from the past, personified by the manipulative Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), keep haunting her in flashbacks suggesting the origins of her self-destructive attitudes towards food, relationships and self-confidence.
Director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge wisely make us wait a half hour before Garland sings a single note. That allows Zellweger to flesh out Garland’s personality, with her quavering speaking voice and deep-seated insecurity masked with a quick, sharp wit. We soon get a sense of what’s at stake for her character – both personally and professionally.
Broadway’s Tracie Bennett sounded more like the real thing. But Zellweger’s performance goes beyond impersonation to get to the heart of what made Garland so unique. She captures not just the full-throated alto and the marionette-like posture but a sense of vulnerability and an emotional openness.
Both the film and Zellweger’s performance get more layered and complex as her Garland realizes the only thing she can count on is her artistic gift. And as much as she feels ambivalent about it, she needs the emotional validation from an audience.
Goold films the performance scenes in an unshowy manner, letting his star shine. I’m not sure if the climactic moment, featuring Garland’s best-loved song, is drawn from real life, but it results in an almost unbearably moving sequence that will speak to anyone who loves art and realizes how much sacrifice and pain goes into making it.