There’s now a substantial awards season sub-genre of evocations of the lives of the rich and famous. Usually with the BBC logo on the front, these films are cheaply made, with a few period locations, and have the feeling of vanity projects for the stars. So from Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool to Stan and Ollie via My Week With Marilyn, these impersonations usually feel like they’ve been created to generate some awards traction; Rupert Goold’s Judy is easily the pick of the bunch so far.
The key factor here is Renee Zellweger, who has had plenty of snippy articles written about her appearance in the past, and seems to have been able to channel that negative energy into a remarkable, heartfelt portrait of a star in decline. With ex-husbands Sidney Lufts (Rufus Sewell) and new lover Mickey Deans (Finn Witrock) in tow, Judy Garland and her kids arrive in London cica 1968 to play a series of shows under the auspices of entrepreneur Lord Delfont (Michael Gambon). The shows are a risk, and Lonnie Donnegan waits backstage ready to fill in if Garland can’t continue with her act.
Booze and pills both enable and disable Garland’s performance, and triumph and disaster seem to be interlinked as the performances go from hit to miss. Of course, those in the audience for these London shows knew all about the star’s reputation, and there’s an element of a bear-pit here that partially explains how quickly the audience’s ire rises. Garland herself took advantage of the tension, tailoring her stage-act to deliberately raise questions about her fitness to perform. Tom Edge’s screenplay, taken from Peter Quilter’s stage-play, makes no bones about Garland having been abused from an early age in various ways, but what makes this incarnation fly is that Garland is portrayed, not as a victim, but as someone who is able to understand and articulate her own experiences and fight back
The musical scenes are very strong, with Zellweger’s voice up to scratch, and a real edge as we, like the audience, wait to see if Garland will be on song or not. There’s a few show-biz cliches here, but as Zellweger knocks it out of the park as a heart-breaking, self-aware middle-aged heroine, this is about as good as a film on this subject can be.