There’s a certain irony in the fact that the first English-language film version of Somerset Maugham’s novella Theatre should come complete with a Hungarian director, Hungarian financing and an American star. Perhaps this says more about the sorry state of filmmaking in Britain today than anything else, though it’s actually a minor miracle that the film was made at all.
I mean, in 2004, what are the odds of seeing a thoroughly civilized and sophisticated comedy — with a few dashes of over-the-top near-slapstick — set in a picture-perfect recreation of 1938 England and bolstered by a clever soundtrack of period recordings and faithful new versions of period songs? Very slim indeed, yet that’s what we have here.
And while the film isn’t quite perfect, it’s close enough — especially in Annette Bening’s glorious lead performance — that it seems churlish to complain.
As the story begins, Bening plays Julia Lambert, a 45-year-old stage star suffering from an adult-sized dose of ennui — or at least she seems to be. It quickly becomes apparent that it’s quite impossible to tell just where Julia’s real emotions (if she has any) end and her acting begins. The setup for this theme is actually in the film’s first scene, where her mentor, theatrical impresario Jimmy Langton (a deliciously ripe Michael Gambon), gives her acting advice.
Jimmy, it transpires, has been dead for 15 years, even though Julia keeps a place for him at the dinner table, on the theory that “he might come back.” And indeed — much like Harold Pinter as the deceased Uncle Benny in John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama — Jimmy, or at least some vestige of him, pops up throughout the film to offer further advice or to critique Julia’s performances, both on and offstage. His appearances could have been a clumsy contrivance, but they work here.
At the same time, it’s not hard to believe that Julia might be fed up with her life on the stage, because, as is almost always the case in movies about the theater, it’s difficult to imagine anyone actually performing the plays we see bits of — never mind envisioning that an audience would sit still for them. Her desire is to quit the theater and loll selfishly about doing nothing in the company of her openly lecherous financial backer, Dolly De Vries (Miriam Margolyes, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), while leaving her more-or-less in-name-only husband, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), in the lurch with an empty theater.
All this changes, though, when Michael asks her to be nice to a young American, Tom Fennell (British TV actor Shaun Evans). At first, Julia is put off by Tom’s naive gaucherie, but soon the advances of a nice-looking man who is half her age pay dividends. The ensuing affair gives her a new lease on life — or so it seems.
This is where the film falters a bit, since it doesn’t quite put a face on Tom. His motive ultimately becomes grounded in getting his much-younger girlfriend, Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch, Ella Enchanted), a role in Julia’s new play, but the girlfriend ceases to exist in his life when he becomes involved with Julia. So this variation on All About Eve has no bearing on his original motive, which the film never addresses.
All of this is very arch and theatrical, and that’s how it should be. The story is in the great tradition of comedies of the theater, and Julia is one of that sub-genre’s great creations — the kind that would not shame Lily Garland in Twentieth Century or Margo Channing in All About Eve. She’s perfectly summed-up in one defining moment, when she denounces herself to her husband as “a horrible, heartless bitch,” and, rather than argue the point, he merely says, “Nevertheless … you’re a great actress.”
Within the confines of the story (and in the hands of Bening, who has never been quite this good), it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that the people in Julia’s colorful sphere love her not in spite of her shortcomings, but because of them.
The drama of the piece finally centers on just how Julia will revenge herself on Michael (who is not innocent of dalliance), as well as on Avice and Tom. The answer to that question may not be terribly realistic, but it’s certainly amusing and fitting. Moreover, it fits the established psychology of the characters and proves that the artistic alliance between Julia and Michael makes their marriage more of a real one than it might seem to be at first glance.
The film isn’t especially deep, but it’s a hugely enjoyable adult entertainment built on a fine screenplay by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), effortlessly stylish direction by Szabo and the combined efforts of a nearly flawless cast. Bening is nothing less than radiant, and she receives wonderful support from Irons, Margolyes, Gambon and, especially, Juliet Stevenson. Rated R for some sexuality.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke