Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain star in this adaptation of a 19th century Swedish play
August Strindberg is one of Sweden’s most famous writers. Miss Julie is an adaptation of his 1888 play of the same name. Director Liv Ullmann, whose last film Faithless was in competition at Cannes in 2000, translated the text from Swedish and adapted the story to set it in Ireland. From this tragedy of social mores and class conflict emerges a dull and pompous film, but one in which Colin Farrell gives a brilliant performance.
On midsummer’s night in an Irish castle Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a baron, flirts with a valet, John (Colin Farrell). All other servants are in the barn, dancing the night away, save for Kathleen the cook, John’s fiancée, who watches the seduction unfold with a lucid eye. This is, in short, the whole plot. Ullmann creates an oppressive huis clos – no other person appears on screen, even silently, and this eerie edge is further enhanced by restricted sets. All scenes are limited to a few rooms, with two or three moments outdoors – all beautifully shot. However, as so much of the plot centres around societal judgement, this creates a rather odd and unrealistic ambiance – characters discuss endlessly how they will be seen by others, while they remain in a void.
The flirtation ends as one might expect and the pair spend the second half of the film discussing its outcome to little fruition. Farrell is perfect in his role as a suave and educated servant – he makes his character’s devouring ambition charming, and his incapacity to escape his class tragic. Chastain also delivers a strong performance, unfortunately undermined by the inconsistency of the character she portrays. At first Julie is bold, demanding, and confident, yet as soon as the situation reverses, she inexplicably becomes hysterical and weepy, proclaiming that she has provoked her downfall – something she had admitted she was longing for only a few hours earlier. It is impossible to sympathise with her, and as a result, many scenes lose interest.
Miss Julie is all the more frustrating as its characters never consider their only practical option – to do nothing. The conclusion is over-dramatized and dull, except for a shocking act involving a bird in a cage. The play’s themes are at best ineffective and at worst irrelevant. Discussions of social mobility and gender differences are too obviously inserted into dialogue to be stirring; those of morality and women’s honour are so unimaginatively reiterated that they are simply tedious. The film concludes with an out of place meditation on salvation through religion.
Unfortunately, Strindberg’s play hasn’t aged well and Ullmann’s decision to enhance its theatricality, rather than underplay it, makes it worse. Miss Julie is really only worth watching for Farrell’s performance.
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