Being Julia, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Theatre, is the story of Julia Lambert, an actress so charismatic, so riveting that she makes the flimsiest of farces, the most maudlin of melodramas come alive in London’s West End theaters of 1938. It’s tempting to view the movie itself as the modern equivalent of those 1938 plays, as a forgettable vehicle for a terrific performance by Annette Bening. After all, the film is very 1930s British—from the well-schooled enunciation of its actors to the epigrammatic quips of its dialogue, from its static lack of action to its bubble-enclosed obliviousness to everything else that was happening in 1938.
But Being Julia is actually better than that. Maugham’s novel was adapted by Ron Harwood, the veteran screenwriter responsible for The Pianist, The Dresser, and Taking Sides, and Harwood fills this old-fashioned story with plenty of sly wit. “Michael and I lead separate lives,” Julia tells one admirer. “That’s why we’re so happily married.” Whenever she bemoans her life, her friends are likely to say, “Do you mean that or are you acting? I can never tell.”
Like Julia, Bening is a 46-year-old actress whose days of playing romantic leads are dwindling down to a precious few. Like her imaginary counterpart, Bening concentrates her remaining glimmers of beauty, reinforces them with every trick she’s ever learned and delivers a bravura performance to postpone the inevitable for another year. And like many a middle-aged person, Julia assuages her insecurity by taking a young lover, a move that is always gratifying in the short run and disastrous in the long. For the job, she picks Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans), a new American assistant in her husband’s office, so bland and callow that one can’t understand why Julia chose him—or why director István Szabó cast Evans.
Michael Gambon plays Julia’s original director, a man who’s been dead for 15 years but still appears before her to direct her offstage performances, which are every bit as calculating as her onstage roles. Julia’s current director and incredibly tolerant husband is portrayed with the sly, ironic reserve that’s Jeremy Irons’ specialty. Szabó, the Hungarian director best known for Mephisto and Taking Sides, keeps things moving along smartly.
Nevertheless, Being Julia is dominated by Bening every bit as much as those fictional 1938 plays are dominated by Julia Lambert. Bening is so good at impersonating a young girl in love that she fools not only Tom and us but herself as well. And when she awakes from her foolish infatuation, she takes a revenge that is as theatrically satisfying as it ridiculously over the top.