By the time we meet Judy Garland in Rupert Goold's Judy, the yellow brick road has been painted pitch black and the one-time golden girl has become a Hollywood pariah too drug-addled and undependable to make a dime in tinseltown yet still famous enough in London to snag top dollar for a series of shows that she's hoping will put her back on the road to financial stability and the ability to provide as a mother should for her adoring yet weary children (played by Game of Thrones' Bella Ramsey and Lewin Lloyd).
Based upon Peter Quilter's stage play "The End of the Rainbow," Judy is largely centered around Garland's five-week gig at London's Talk of the Town nightclub that offers a glimpse of the Judy Garland that once was but also of the Judy Garland that would ultimately never be again.
The truth of Judy Garland is well known; dead at 47 of a long-standing and Hollywood-fueled pill addiction, the actress/singer who once sang mesmerized us with the words "there's no place like home" seemed to never be able to find such a safe place for herself. Despite the versatility evident in having been the recipient of a Grammy Award, Golden Globe Award, juvenile Academy Award, and a special Tony Award, Garland's life was in a rapid downward spiral when she hesitantly agreed to go just about the only place left that would have her.
Judy is a mishmash of over-sentimentality and theatrical grotesqueness, a film awash in Rupert Goold's awkward directorial choices yet a film that soars, absolutely soars, every single time that Academy Award-winner Renee Zellweger appears on the screen and especially when she leans into those golden vocal pipes that we never knew she had.
Fortunately, that's often.
Zellweger masterfully captures Garland's late life insecure swagger, a stage-owning emotional stagedive of sorts into a sort of rhythmic fetal position that gave her old classics a primal urgency and soul on fire gut punch. Zellweger certainly can't match Garland's once-in-a-lifetime voice, though it's doubtful that anyone could and it's a fair bet that Zellweger does it better than just about anyone.
Zellweger doesn't so much resemble Garland as she simply embodies her, a sort of psychic channeling that brings to life Garland's strangely compelling slouch and pursed lips that seem to be practically inflicting a silence upon her from years of being told what to do and how to do it and when to do it by nearly anyone and everyone who professed any kind of concern or care for her.
The film takes place in 1968; her fourth marriage is kaput and her inability to get a film or a musical gig stateside has left her practically homeless and unable to provide care for her younger children. Liza (Gemma-Leah Devereux) is barely a factor here, a young adult having already moved out and in the early days of her own musical career. Garland resists overtures by ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for the kids to live with him, at least during the school year, though this is an argument Garland's bound to lose unless she can find a way to make big money fast.
Judy captures Garland's desperation to hold on to her kids, though it's clear it's a desperation borne as much out of Garland's need to be loved as it is Garland's love for her children. When impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) comes calling, Garland ultimately knows there's no choice but to leave her kids behind if she has any hope at all of ever truly building a life with them. Farmed out to an overmatched keeper (Jessie Buckley) and a wary bandleader (Royce Pierreson), Garland's last chance London gig is filled with the peaks and valleys that reflect, at times heartbreakingly, Garland's own emotional chaos that would largely lead to her fifth and final marriage to Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock).
Director Rupert Goold is largely known as a stage director in England, a fact that becomes evident early on with car scenes that are almost laughably awkward and other scenes, most notably those involving flashbacks to young Judy (Darci Shaw), that aren't just overly sentimental but practically drowning in sentimental sludge and Louis Mayer (Richard Cordery) connivery.
Nearly all is right, however, when Zellweger takes hold of the film and refuses to let go. Zellweger's Oscar buzz is warranted, a nomination practically assured and a win not out of the question. Zellweger is absolutely mesmerizing here, simultaneously achingly vulnerable and viciously self-destructive and capable of stunning tenderness of which she seems utterly afraid.
While Judy is Zellweger's film from beginning to end, there are certainly supporting players that hold their own including Jessie Buckley's quietly assured turn as Rosalyn, Garland's 28-year-old personal assistant who seems to care about Garland more than Garland believes. In a relatively brief turn, young Bella Ramsey is marvelous while an unnecessary yet endearing story thread involving a gay couple (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerquiera) gives the film some much needed emotional honesty. Finn Witrock, on the other hand, is miscast as Garland's last husband Mickey Deans, a young wannabe up-and-comer whose relationship with Garland never feels genuine and never has near the payoff it should.
In the right role, Wittrock is just fine. This isn't the right role.
The rest of the ensemble cast is perfectly fine, though they pretty much step aside for Zellweger's Judy.
The film's final moments, which I won't describe here, are practically worth the price of admission itself despite an unabashed sentimentality that is hardly earned. Zellweger seems to be singing from the very essence of her being here, allowing Garland a soulful purging of her demons and one last glimpse at the adoration of fans who clung to the memories of a Judy long gone.
Perhaps more somber and melancholy than one might expect, Judy is a must see if only for the career-defining performance of the resurgent Renee Zellweger as she's headed toward awards season glory once again. Otherwise flawed yet still infinitely watchable, Judy is so vivid in its capturing of Garland's tragic life that you may never watch The Wizard of Oz in the same way again.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic