Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
Stars: Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Michael Gambon
Writer: Peter Quilter
Director: Rupert Goold
On its lavishly produced and lovingly envisioned surface, Judy is about the last months of Judy Garland’s life — specifically her triumphant yet troubled series of sold-out concerts in London, barely six months before her 1969 death of a drug overdose.
But there’s also a persistent subtext to the film’s every frame: This is emphatically a movie about Renée Zellweger playing Judy Garland, reclaiming the mantle of “serious actor” that marked Zellweger for greatness nearly two decades ago, when in three consecutive years she was nominated for three Oscars and won one.
To which I can only add: Mission Accomplished. Zellweger mesmerizes as the singer, capturing that doe-eyed stare, the endearingly awkward mannerisms, the black hole of neediness that seemed to suck at Judy’s life force as surely as did the amphetamines and barbiturates that coursed through her system from her earliest days as a child star.
There is a built-in pitfall for any movie musical biography like Judy: The choice must be made between letting the star do the singing or have them lip synch a recording, either of the original artist or a passable sound-alike. Zellweger bravely opts for the former, and it’s been reported she trained for months to come as close as possible to recreating Garland’s unique vocal qualities.
In that regard, Zellweger was of course doomed from the start. If anyone else could sing like Judy Garland, they’d be selling out the Palace Theatre for 27 nights. I suppose no one really knows if it was the drugs or the booze or the crippling insecurities that did it, but Garland’s late-life singing style was inimitable: Invariably hitting the right note, then warbling a half-step above and below it — barely in control yet ultimately in command — before settling back at the exact spot where she started. Zellweger can’t do it, nor could anyone else. For Judy it was organic, like breathing.
Still, because Zellweger comes to the role with such fierce determination, those musical numbers remain beyond compelling. Director Rupert Goold fills the screen with Zellweger’s face, putting every lopsided smile and nervous sideways glance under his camera’s electron microscope.
Goold happens to be one of England’s leading directors of Shakespeare plays, and he puts the experience to good use, painting Judy as a tragic figure of Shakespearian scope. The script by Peter Quilter — loosely based on his stage play End of the Rainbow — populates Judy’s last days with a diverse cast of characters real and imagined. Most memorable is a gay couple (Andy Nyman and Phil Dunster) who ask for Judy’s autograph after a London performance — and end up bringing the lonely star home for scrambled eggs. The setup for that encounter seems hokey, but it’s the one moment in the film when we feel like we’re getting a glimpse into the off-guard Judy, the one who could, at least for a moment, take her focus off of herself.
It’s the film’s one and only Get Happy moment, and like Judy herself, Judy could have used more of those.