Annette Bening can take her place in line behind Imelda Staunton in the queue of actresses robbed of an Oscar by lesser performances. In the role of a lifetime, Bening is luminous as an aging actress who’s the toast of 1930s London’s theater society.
As the film begins, Julia’s feted and adored, but she’s bored. She longs for something to happen and then it does, in the form of an affair with a much younger man, an American named Tom. At first Julia revels in the love affair. Her theater director husband turns a blind eye and Julia could care less about the gossip. But when she sees Tom’s fickle attention wandering to a younger actress and then learns her husband is having an affair as well, she does what any great actress would do–she puts on a brilliant performance.
Bening captures every facet of this woman so completely, fiery, jealous, loving, flirtatious, insecure, and through it all she looks her age, gorgeous and mature. Theater people are larger than life, and some of Julia’s scenes walk right up to the edge of over-the-top, but it works because that’s how her character would act, always “on.” It also plays to the theme running through the film: Can Julia, an actress famed for her ability to convincingly turn on the water works in the blink of an eye, ever not act.
The fun in this movie comes from watching Bening’s pitch-perfect performance, British accent and all, and seeing how it will all come out in the end. By the final act, I was right there in the opening night audience, hanging on Julia’s performance, waiting to see just how her delightful revenge would play out.
The film looks fabulous, with tons of period detail. Michael Gambon has a nice role as Julia’s mentor who appears (only to her) to coach from the sidelines of her own life’s play. It was a device that I thought worked very well. [****]