Review: Miss Julie
For her first feature in over a decade, Liv Ullman’s Miss Julie connotes a wayward sense of morality and hysteria, evocative of her past director-muse relationship with Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman.
An adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play Fröken Julie (previously brought to the screen in 1951 by Alf Sjöberg, as well as in 1999 by Mike Figgis), the story concerns Julie (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, who has grown up in a massive rural estate isolated from the outside world. A game of power structures erupts through her decision to seduce her father’s valet John (Colin Farrell), already set to marry the household’s maid Kathleen (Samantha Morton). These three characters are put at odds with each other, under the pretenses of gender, social standing, sexual prowess, and utter insanity.
Ullman relocates the setting from Sweden to Ireland, with the plot occurring over the span of a few hours on midsummer’s eve in 1890. Much of the visual splendour can be contributed to the work of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, a frequent collaborator of Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan).The barren, austere atmosphere, depicted with a great deal of negative space throughout, accentuates the title character’s claustrophobia and state of melancholy. These attributes are closely in line with Bergman’s filmography, alongside the use of minimalist tendencies, no better conferred than through a simplistic three actor ensemble.
Within that group, Jessica Chastain once again demonstrates her talent as a versatile actress in contemporary cinema, through the ability to create empathy towards a stubborn, narcissistic personality like Julie. The range that encapsulates Chastain’s filmography only grows wider with this performance, as she undertakes the tradition of classical theatre, and remains just as alluring as her popular films to date. In the role of John, Colin Farrell provides an excellent, morally-conflicted foil, who attempts to withstand Julie’s corruptive ways, oscillating between affection and contempt for her personality. Finally, Samantha Morton provides a neutral party to the proceedings as Kathleen, and is very much the understated actress of the trio by way of not getting the opportunity to shine until midway through the film’s duration. All three actors get multiple chances for enthusiastic, affecting monologues, that give Miss Julie its most direct invocation of arising from the stage.
Despite these elements, the gradual pace and period setting may not intrigue most viewers, except those possibly looking for a dark respite from Downton Abbey. For all the superficial alterations Ullman makes, her direction adds only a faint sense of aesthetic dimensionality. Her decision to stretch the narrative past its limitations results in an uneven mixture of intense confrontation and silent meandering. In short, Miss Julie is captivating on the level of a Metropolitan Opera simulcast screening, with slightly better production values.