“Miss Julie” is a master class in acting . . . for the stage. As a movie, however, writer-director Liv Ullmann’s meticulous adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play about class and power feels overwrought and histrionic. It’s a performance big enough for the balcony seats, squeezed into a boutique cinema.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s not a thing to chide about the emotional precision with which Jessica Chastain delivers Julie, the troubled daughter of an aristocrat who flirts with, and then seduces, her father’s manservant, John (Colin Farrell). Chastain’s performance, which ranges from tipsy coquettishness to suicidal distraction, is clear and convincing.
But the character isn’t so much out of place as out of proportion to the room. Histrionics that would work on stage — not just work, but wow an audience — here come across as ostentatious.
Transplanting the 19th-century action from Sweden to Ireland, Ullmann otherwise faithfully follows Strindberg’s story, which takes place almost exclusively in the kitchen of a baronial estate, where the title character has a brief liaison with her father’s valet, almost literally under the disapproving eye of that employee’s fiancee (Samantha Morton). The action mainly concerns the aspirations of John, an unusually cultured and well-read peasant who dreams of one day opening his own hotel.
But the play is called “Miss Julie,” not “John,” and it is Chastain’s character that serves as the vehicle for Strindberg’s exploration of the theme of control. As such, Chastain has the burden of rendering Julie as both a human being and an abstraction. It’s a tall order, requiring the actress to exhibit great cruelty at times, and then later, almost desperate need. Yet Chastain manages to solidly hit both marks.
One wonders, though, just what it is about this play that compelled Ullmann to film it in the first place. To be sure, it’s a plum role for an actress, but the 1951 Swedish film version remains the gold standard. And the themes of power, privilege and remembering one’s place — fleshed out in a story of a “fallen” woman who is both manipulator and the manipulated — aren’t especially timely. As a symbol, Chastain’s Julie is a peculiarly retrograde one.
For their parts, Farrell and Morton are more down to earth and relatable, leading one to speculate that Strindberg himself probably felt greater affinity for his working-class characters than for his heroine. As a performer, Chastain is easy to admire, but her Julie just isn’t very likable.
All of this means that “Miss Julie” is a strangely clinical movie experience. It’s a story that makes an impression without leaving a mark.
R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row. Contains brief obscenity, sensuality and an instance of violence toward an animal. 129 minutes.