Wait until you can stream it…
Adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from the stage play End of the Rainbow, Judy will feel familiar for fans of biopic dramas released around award season. If you have seen any film of this genre, you have seen Judy. Stan and Ollie, for example, is almost identical to this film. One famous star is simply substituted for another. Nevertheless, it is not a bad film, for it gets right everything comparable films in the genre also get right. The plot, whilst familiar, is tight and well-structured, and Zellweger is brilliant as Judy Garland. The production and costume designers deserve a lot of credit too. It would have been nice if this film played it a little less safe.
The production and costume design is marvellous to look at. Recreating the 1930s American film sets and 1960s London, each setting feels real and authentic. The flashbacks and the main narrative both feel different from each other, and that is because of the hard work put into recreating both eras. From the very start, there is a recreation of the Oz set that is just gorgeous to look at.
The work behind the scenes allows for an impressive backdrop against which Renée Zellweger dazzles. Her performance captures the sense that Garland was vulnerable and self-destructive, and that she was in denial about it at times. She sells the idea that Garland was frail and damaged, with a performance attentive to detail, even to subtle twitches. Zellweger’s performance is the film’s main selling point.
The rest of the film is well-put together. At the start, the scenes, cutting back and forth in time, run smoothly. The film’s climax comes with a performance of “Over the Rainbow”- ask yourself, does this surprise you at all? Of course it was going to end here. Further, the structure is predictable with a change in circumstance followed by flashback pattern. It is done well. The relationship between the flashback and the present situation is always clear, so that the flashbacks do not feel jolting, and so the film has a smooth rhythm. Having this structure, however, gives the film an unoriginal “origins story” feel, as if all the bad things that happened to her made as a child were integral to making Garland a star, as if they are a necessary part of her development, akin to Bruce Wayne losing his parents so he could become Batman. Structurally, it plays it safe, with a very conventional situation, flashback, situation, then flashback, approach. The film is well-put, but conventional and safe.
This style of storytelling is hard to stomach, given the fact the main character is Judy Garland. Garland suffered sexual abuse (which is not even depicted clearly!), and was denied a childhood, not even being allowed to eat, and being drugged up to suit the producer’s needs. She is not even allowed a birthday on her birthday because it will clash with filming schedules. Garland was used and abused by the studio system, but the film does not criticise the system enough; rather, it seems to suggest it was all part of the shaping Garland’s personality.
Judy could have benefited, and given itself much more to say, if it took the time to criticise this system that swallowed the real Garland whole and wrecked her life. It does not. It authentically shows the 1930s and 1960s as they were, with some impressive production and costume design, but it does not go out of its way to condemn the practices. As stated, this is not a bad film. Zellweger’s performance is a good reason to see it. It just feels like a missed opportunity. Judy plays it safe when it could have aimed for something more profound.