Director: Rupert Goold
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Gemma-Leah Devereux, Bella Ramsey, Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerqueira, Royce Pierreson, Darci Shaw and Michael Gambon
Run time: 1h 58m
By the late 1960s, Hollywood had virtually shunned former starlet, Judy Garland (Zellweger). Having earned a reputation as being unreliable and unpredictable, her debts were spiralling out of control and she was in danger of losing the one thing she cherished above all else; her children.
In desperate need of money, Judy embarked on a five-week headlining slot at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London, which is where director Rupert Goold places most of the action. Flashbacks are used every now and then as Judy’s time filming The Wizard of Oz is examined, focusing on the mental and physical abuse she received at the hand of studio executive, Louis B. Mayer (a despicably oily Richard Cordery). Exhausted and longing for a normal life, she pops pills to help her sleep, to help her stay awake and to help suppress her appetite in one of many heart-breaking scenes that goes some way to explain her erratic behaviour.
As some of these habits remain in her adult life, Renée Zellweger is virtually unrecognisable as Judy and captures her insecurities, anxieties and desperate craving for affection with fascinating attention to detail. And, what a voice she has. Whether it’s belting out ‘The Trolley Song’ or letting her guard down to reveal her inner turmoil in an intimate confessional version of ‘Over the Rainbow’, Zellweger is simply sensational as she gives her all in a magnificent performance.
Paired up with personal assistant Rosalyn (Buckley), there are moments of humour to be found in amongst the hardship. The frequent battles to get Judy ready for the stage and her amusing handling of hecklers entertains as glimpses of her star power shine through, but these moments are few and far between and bittersweet. There’s a rather cruel television interview that focuses on her strained relationship with her children and we meet two of her husbands (Sewell and Wittrock) which shows her private life is every bit as turbulent as her professional life.
Other moments unfortunately don’t quite hit the intended target. There’s a sub-plot involving two fans (Nyman and Cerquiera) that, other than celebrating Garland’s position as a gay icon, feels completely out of place with the tone of the film and certainly doesn’t add to the drama, whilst the finale becomes a schmaltzy, unnecessarily upbeat ending making a nonsense of what was to come just six months later.
Nevertheless, Judy is a fascinating insight into one of Hollywood’s most tragic stories and worth watching for Zellweger’s remarkable showing, but, with braver choices more in keeping with Garland’s real-life journey down that yellow brick road, it could’ve been so much more.
Judy opens in UK cinemas on Wednesday 2 October.