THE STORY – Thirty years after starring in “The Wizard of Oz,” beloved actress and singer Judy Garland arrives in London to perform sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans and begins a whirlwind romance with musician Mickey Deans, her soon-to-be fifth husband.
THE CAST – Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell & Michael Gambon
THE TEAM – Rupert Gold (Director) & Tom Edge (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 118 Minutes
By Daniel Howat
Academy Award winner Renée Zellweger has had a somewhat low-key last few years, with her highest-profile project this decade being “Bridget Jones’ Baby.” With “Judy,” Zellweger bursts back onto the scene with ferocity, undeniably giving one of the best performances of the year and arguably, her best ever.
Rupert Goold’s biopic of Judy Garland focuses on the star’s later years, well past the glory days of her stardom. Judy is somewhat reeling, taking whatever money she can get for performing at cheap clubs in America. She’s constantly drinking and taking pills, keeping her kids out into the middle of the night so they can perform with her. Naturally, the children’s father, Sidney (Rufus Sewell), wants custody of the kids. Judy heads to London for a residency at a nightclub, a lucrative deal for her that might allow her to buy a house and bring a sense of normalcy to the children.
But Judy doesn’t do normal well and never has. While “Judy” thankfully isn’t exactly a traditional cradle-to-grave biopic, it does open with Judy as the young star (Darci Shaw) on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” and flashes back periodically throughout the film. These flashbacks show Judy’s, let’s say, “non-traditional” adolescence. Mentally abused to keep her figure, force-fed pills and drugs to keep her awake, and never allowed to have normal relationships, her childhood was stolen from her. It’s no surprise that adult Judy is essentially still a child, needing constant adulation, her mood going up and down at the drop of a hat. She’s broken, but the sort of broken that keeps her propped up on a stage longing for love and attention.
Zellweger dives into this role with complete dedication. Yes, hairstyling, brown contacts, and rubber teeth help make her look the part, but she truly inhabits the soul of Judy Garland. In this part, she walks both with the confidence of a woman who’s been famous her entire life, and a genuine fear of being alone or forgotten. She’s so genuine even in the little moments, like snapping her fingers to herself as she pretends to check out a mockup of the stage. Her pain is so vividly depicted. It’s a tragic and yet endlessly watchable performance. She’s also perfect in the musical performances in London, of which there are quite a few. From big numbers with full band and showgirls to a heartbreaking rendition of “Over The Rainbow,” Zellweger never falters.
Aside from the performance, the film itself plays to fairly familiar beats. It’s hard to knock a film telling the story of Judy’s life, but it feels like we’ve seen too many versions of a similar story by now. There’s the authority figure, Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), who beats her down, there’s the love interest whose intentions might not be pure, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), and more. Deans is a particularly confusing character, who sort of just shows up in London after only briefly meeting Garland at a party in LA. It’s not clear how long (if at all) they’ve been together before getting married.
While Garland’s time in London is a fascinating look at the broken star, the flashbacks to her youth show hint at a much more compelling story. A scene between Garland and Mickey Rooney is intriguing, seeing the false nature of their relationship mixed with the torment of being a young woman needing to “maintain” her figure. These scenes show a completely different version of the standard biopic we typically see and may have been a more unique insight into Garland’s life.
While the film itself is a fine look at the latter years of Garland, it’s elevated by the remarkable leading performance. It’s hard not to rave too much about her. Zellweger’s performance is one for the ages. Her fierce sadness is transfixing, elevating everything around her. She’s truly unforgettable, and exactly as Judy Garland herself would’ve hoped to be portrayed on screen.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Renée Zellweger’s powerhouse performance as Judy Garland commands your attention from beginning to end. Her fierce sadness is transfixing, elevating this somewhat standard biopic. She is endlessly watchable in this career-best role.
THE BAD – This story plays out to the standard biopic beats we’ve seen plenty of times before, so it’s pretty unsurprising.