'Being Julia': Curtain Calls For a Devilishly Delicious Tale

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2004

There is nothing like a dame.

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

The show must go on.

Bromides all, those three sturdy banalities nevertheless form the foundation of the wondrous "Being Julia," which may lack originality but makes up for it in sheer bravado and really nice clothes.

Set in a lustrously evoked London theater world of the late 1930s, when men wore hats and women pearls and both bared their fangs through smiles, the movie follows as a grand old forty-something gal of the theater fights age, youthful usurpers and general boredom. Where's Noel Coward, you might ask, or Gertrude Lawrence? Well, if they're not here, their archetypes are.

Another archetype present is W. Somerset Maugham, upon whose novel "Theatre" the movie is based. That possibly explains its old-school stolidity as well as its three-act structure, its professional manipulation of major and minor players, the wit of its dialogue and the hardness of the steel fist behind its star's velvet glove. And translating Maugham to the screen is Ronald Harwood, an Old Salt Brit (he wrote "The Dresser," also set backstage, some years ago, and dozens of other films; his script for "The Pianist" won him an Academy Award). So between them, Maugham and Harwood must know everything there is to know about the London stage.

At the same time, the film nods graciously to the classic theater movie of all time, 1950's "All About Eve." Talk about bumpy rides, Annette Bening's Julia Lambert has nothing on Bette Davis's Margo Channing. Both are lionesses in winter, brought to bay by the ambitions of youth. But both know how to fight back, which is where all the fun begins.

Bening, behind her high-voltage eyes and a fair shake at an English accent, plays the great theatrical legend Lambert, a diva's diva whom we discover holding forth magisterially in a flamboyant melodrama in her own West End theater, produced by her own husband, Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons, extraordinarily fabulous in suits that have been actually tailored!). It's not art, but it pays for several houses, a fabulous wardrobe, a tribe of servants and a comforting sense of being at the center of a theatrical Camelot. Bening clearly relishes the role -- what actress wouldn't, given the chance to out-Bette Bette Davis -- and her energy drives the movie forward.

As we meet her, however, we discover that the brilliant Julia is weary. She's bored with the boards and seeking respite from the play's hammy fluff. This lady needs a vacation, and since the South of France is out, she decides to rusticate in the bed of a 25-year-old American fan.

This fellow, the handsome, chipper, earnest Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), comes coded with a secret message: Beware the handsome, the chipper and the earnest. In fact, he argues for the unimportance of being earnest. Anyhow, Tom the charmer soon makes the momentarily vulnerable Julia his special friend. She's flaunting her new boy toy all about the town, showering him with Cartier Tank watches and sterling silver cigarette cases. But soon it's evident that he's not as loyal to her as she is, in her married, only-one-lover-at-a-time way, to him. His behavior inspires jealousy and anguish in the wiser older woman.

Meanwhile, Julia's husband is civilized and British about all this, which is to say, ironic. Shouldn't the great Irons change his name professionally to Jeremy Ironic? That's a tone he does better than anybody in the world. "Oh, everybody sleeps with everybody in the theater," he says with a grin at one point.

But -- if you've seen "All About Eve" you'll see this one coming -- young Tom isn't as innocent as he seems. He's a climber, a schemer, a plotter. His love for Julia isn't quite the crusade of admiration, Parsifal-pure. He wants something. And then another thing. And then another.

Since this is England in the '30s, there are no scenes, only brittle repartee and stiff-upper-lip pluck. You'd think all these people had gone to Eton or something. In any event, there comes a moment when Julia understands that she's been betrayed by nearly everybody, and she sets out to wreak some havoc. She stoops to conquer.

Julia's plot is devilish, all the more so for the delight Bening conjures in setting it up and executing it. It's a punishment that wonderfully fits the criminals.

The director is the Hungarian Istvan Szabo, who has at least one great film, "Mephisto" (in 1981, also about a theatrical character), to his credit. Szabo is working with Lajos Koltai, his longtime cinematographer, and they re-create a sense of softly lit, pre-fluorescent London, back when the bulbs flickered like candles, full of warm woods and dark, light-absorbing fabric. In the lushness of his lighting, Koltai manages to make the theater seem like a grand, nourishing tradition, almost a Sherwood Forest in old brick buildings. It adds to the delight of the film.

Being Julia (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for some sexuality.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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