The original play that inspired Judy, penned for a 2005 debut by Peter Quilter, was rather more appropriately titled ‘End of the Rainbow’. This is not to relate film and play alike to some pot of gold but instead to note the sobriety with which each characterises the later life of a star who was driven to anything but. Judy may, semantically, lay the ground for heraldic tribute to Garland as icon but it is a film that works best when it explores the desperation of a mother at sea. The tone is somber, give or take a handful of glitzy highlights, and the aftertaste embittered by a distressingly emotional crux. At the film’s core, Renée Zellweger gives the most electrically all-in performance of her career.
A constant in the self-obsessive portrayal of a fractured Hollywood has always had time for the dichotomy of fame and despair, the glamorous and the guttural. Think only La La Land. Judy epitomises the disparity, channeling both Paul McGuigan’s recent delight Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and the rise and fall momentum of Garland’s own A Star is Born. There is none of Stan & Ollie’s more winsome nostalgia here.
Directed with only rare flair by Rupert Goold – more at home, perhaps, on the stage – Judy instead contextualises its subject’s decline through tragic parallels to a childhood stolen by the viscous greed of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). It’s not nuanced. Flashbacks capture the slow degradation of a regular girl twisted monstrously down a spiral of mental ill-health and addiction. Aged just fourteen, Judy (in these scenes played by Darci Shaw) is mercilessly appraised as too fat, too plain, too impulsive. It is no wonder she will later become the woman mesmerically reborn by Zellweger.
Not normally known for method acting – her Beatrix Potter was period Bridget Jones – Zellweger pours her all into a performance that streaks past impersonation and finds a delicious home in embodiment of soul. It’s not just the prosthetics and excellent hair, make up and clothing but the slight hunch, the raised eyebrows, wide eyes and ingenue voice. When she sings, the likeness is remarkable. If her pouting smiles, though few and far between, warm the heart, the ever-present agony behind her eyes thoroughly breaks it. The film is never better than in the scene Zellweger’s Judy calls home from a London phone box to accept a devastating conclusion: ‘So you’re saying I have to leave my children if I want to make enough money to be with my children?’ Tom Edge’s screenplay takes great pains to convey his heroine as a woman for whom family was everything.
Perhaps the problem with Judy is that Zellweger is too good in the role, if such is possible. Certainly, there is a dullness to all in her shadow. While the film boasts a typically majestic attention to visual depth, Judy’s supporting players could hardly be thinner sketched. Jessie Buckley is horribly wasted in a role reduced to looking pained in doorways, whilst Michael Gambon’s Bernard Delfont proves to be an expensive extra for the production. Edge carves a minimal arc in plot and slackens over an excessive two hour runtime. Zellweger hasn’t anyone to bounce off – no Peter Turner to her Gloria Grahame- and must simply fizz off her own back. It’s impressive, often powerful, but not always compulsive enough to sustain narrative. There’s darkness in Zellweger’s eyes that Edge never fully plunders and mines.
The final effect is a biopic that lacks adventure and is limited where insight is concerned. Zellweger has never been better but is marooned in more generic territory. It is psychologically simplistic and concludes with blatant, admittedly effective, ham. Garland lived a more complex life than this and there’s a story yet to be told here.