'Miss Julie': Toronto Review

A gifted cast sometimes isn't enough 

Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton star in Liv Ullmann's film of the classic Strindberg drama, relocated to Ireland

Alongside her tormented soul sisters in the great plays of Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, the title character in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is a late 19th century Scandinavian creation who could be virtually any modern woman straining against rigid gender politics, class expectations and stifling societal rules. So it’s disappointing to report that despite nuanced work from the luminous Jessica Chastain in the role, alongside a bristling Colin Farrell, Liv Ullmann’s screen adaptation is a ponderous, stately affair that lacks relevance and acquires only intermittent power.

Transplanted with few discernible losses or gains to a rural castle in Northern Ireland in 1890, the film is no improvement on Mike Figgis’ dour 1999 version, which remained similarly stage-bound. (Both films are inferior to Swedish director Alf Sjoberg's 1951 screen adaptation.) While Figgis fussed around with split screen and ratcheted up the carnality in search of a modern edge, Ullmann sticks to a Masterpiece Theatre template, stretching out scenes to stultifying lengths and slapping lots of adagio classical pieces on the soundtrack to emphasize the somberness of it all.

Aside from a brief prologue in which the young Julie (Nora McMenamy) wanders the empty rooms and grounds of her aristocratic family’s estate, planting an early suggestion that she’s not cut out for the sorrows of the world, Ullmann’s adaptation is more or less faithful to the text.

It’s Midsummer’s Eve, and while the servants are off celebrating at a dance in the barn, and the Baron is likewise away in town, his daughter, Julie, stays behind. The Baron’s valet, John (Farrell), raises his eyebrows in disapproval when he recounts to Kathleen (Samantha Morton), the cook and his unofficial fiancee, that Miss Julie danced with the gamekeeper earlier in the evening and also tried to rope him in for a waltz. It’s a sign of Julie’s neurotic inconsistency that despite her willingness to fraternize with the help, she’d rather risk killing her old pug than allow it to give birth to mongrel pups sired by a servant’s dog.

However, her attraction to impure breeds is clear when she starts coming on strong to John, who has worshipped her since he gazed at her from across the garden wall as a child. Much of the film is a drawn-out, ever-darkening power game in which Miss Julie flirts with and teases the handsome underling and then curtly puts him back in his place when he resists becoming her plaything. John affects the airs of a gentleman, seeing nothing wrong in aspiring to improve his rank, though he’s judgmental about the mistress carrying on in ways that are beneath her station.

That doesn’t stop him from shagging her, when they retreat after a few drinks in the kitchen to his bedroom to avoid the other servants. Which one of them did the seducing is unimportant. The inescapable fact is that lines have been crossed and the status quo has been radically altered. Hasty plans to run away together to Italy were never really going to pan out. But they entertain the possibility for a time until John comes to realize that the woman he idolized has fallen irrevocably from her pedestal, while Miss Julie’s encroaching despair steers her to a fate that was perhaps predetermined.

Both Chastain and Farrell are resourceful, intelligent actors who can be riveting together moment to moment. But the disconcerting thing about Ullmann’s blandly handsome movie is that neither of these key characters comes fully into focus.

It’s intrinsic to Miss Julie that she oscillate between imperiousness and vulnerability, between control and submission. But while Chastain’s ascent into violent anger packs a charge, there’s too little sense of the underlying fatalism that should live deep in the character’s bones. And while Farrell is a tasty bit of rough who would turn the head of any horny lady of the manor, the cold fearfulness and contempt that drive his final choices are undersold.

The most satisfyingly drawn character is Morton’s Kathleen. Described by John in his patronizing fashion as “a sensible girl” and “good wife material,” she’s a religious woman who has her self-respect if not much else. Drabbed down, with her hair pulled back severely off her face, Morton makes Kathleen an outraged witness who can overlook her own humiliation and the transgressions of her intended, but refuses to work in a house where the high-born stoop low.

Ullmann takes the action outside for brief interludes in the surrounding woodlands. But mostly the film is confined to the kitchen and servants’ quarters below ground — airless territory where Miss Julie is an uneasy tourist. That choice, plus the decision to leave the Strindberg work intact as strictly a three-character drama, means it never goes far beyond its theatrical origins.

The film closes on a stunning overhead shot of painterly beauty. But it’s a statement of how unaffecting this adaptation is that the tragic image, which should be emotionally shattering, registers instead as merely a striking visual.

Production companies: Maipo Film, The Apocalypse Film Company, Senorita Films, Subotica
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Nora McMenamy
Director-screenwriter: Liv Ullmann, adapted from August Strindberg’s play
Producers: Synnove Horsdal, Oliver Dungey, Teun Hilte
Executive producers: Julia Balaeskoul Nusseibeh, Christian Baumard, Aaron Gilbert, Alain Kappauf, John Raymonds
Director of photography: Mikhail Krichman
Production designer: Caroline Amies
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Michal Leszczylowski
Sales: Wild Bunch

No rating, 129 minutes