A star shines bright. A star fades. A star is reborn. These are the kind of stories that Hollywood loves. Set in the late 60s, Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) is a now a faded star, getting kicked out of hotels, struggling to support her kids, drinking way too much, and popping pills to get her through each day.
It all starts very slowly with a Los Angeles set introduction to the careworn Judy. There’s a real lack of urgency in the early scenes, and the film feels somewhat dreary and banal. Desperately in need of work to pay her bills, Judy takes a gig in London, which will see her headline a residency at the Talk of the Town nightclub.
Judy (the film) picks up when the action switches to London and we are treated to the live performances, which are of varying quality as Judy struggles with the expectation, the crippling stage fright, and of course the booze. But in the moments when it all comes together, Judy, and Zellweger’s performance truly soars.
It’s hard not to be reminded of last year’s Stan & Ollie, which took a similar story of faded stardom, and one last hurrah in the UK, but managed something altogether more interesting and charming. I think Judy wants to be a dark and shattering expose of Garland’s tragic final years, but it never quite gets there. It feels a little too confined to its stagey origins, and almost cynically awards baiting at times.
Renée Zellweger is tremendous however, delivering one of those epic, transformative performances, completely inhabiting the role. She vividly captures the fragile Garland, down to the tiniest mannerisms. She doesn’t quite nail the voice (who could?) but she makes a damn fine fist of it. The live performances are stunning, but it is in the quieter moments, the backstage anxieties, and hotel room loneliness where Zellweger truly shines, capturing the sadness of Judy’s life. The 23 hours of the day when she’s not on stage being Judy Garland as she calls it.
Her performance is so good in fact that the film fails to keep pace with her. It cuts between the past and present, highlighting the abuse she was subjected to at the hands of the studio when she was just a child. This is stuff we’re all fairly familiar with, and it is handled in the most on-the-nose way. Elsewhere, Jessie Buckley is wasted in an utterly thankless and dreary role as Judy’s assistant. And then there’s the sub-plot with two gay fans which seems to exist solely to remind us that Judy is a gay icon. It’s a lovely scene, but the film has enough problems with its pedestrian pace and repetitive storytelling. It doesn’t need a ten-minute diversion that adds nothing to the plot.
A lot will be said about the mirroring of performer and subject, with Zellweger making her own comeback after six-years away from the industry. It’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t make a difference with Oscar voters, but it does. It adds a certain something to the film, and in turn Renée Zellweger brings a certain something that another actress wouldn’t be able to draw on. She’s almost certain to take home the little gold man next week, and in fairness she will deserve it. But this film doesn’t deserve her, and Judy Garland certainly deserves better.
The Blu-ray disc comes with a very short behind-the-scenes featurette, mostly consisting of talking head interviews interspersed with clips from the film. Becoming Judy is a two-minute clip which skips very quickly through the hair, make-up, costume, and performance that went into transforming Zellweger into Garland. Finally there are a few deleted scenes, and two trailers.
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Finn Witrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon Director: Rupert Goold Writer: Tom Edge Released By: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment Certificate: 12 Duration: 118 mins Release Date: 3rd February 2020