Renee Zellweger just performed one of the best roles of her career. Though Judy is about more than just the titular actress, Zellweger carries the weight of this story, and she carries it well. She makes this movie sing.
It’s 1968, and American actress and singer Judy Garland (Zellweger) finds herself deeply in debt and effectively homeless. After sending her two young children to live with their father, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), she agrees to a five-week residency in London to make money so she can stay with her children. Once the shows begin, Garland clashes with management, family, and her own inner demons as she tries to stay grounded. Romance is at least on her side, as she has a whirlwind relationship with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). As the residency wears on, Judy does her best to maintain her humor and affability in the face of mounting odds.
Zellweger is the heart of this picture. She exudes warmth when she’s with her children, but is also able to switch to being flippant, angry, or confused at the drop of a hat. Judy’s emotional state flies up and down the scale as her drinking and drug habits get worse, and Zellweger keeps pace with every step. She emulates Judy Garland to the best of her ability. By contrast, few others in the cast are able to match her energy. Sewell gets few scenes, and never really steps away from being a concerned father to his children. In heated scenes with Judy, he stays fairly placid. Jessie Buckley plays Judy’s assistant while in London, and is perfectly competent at her job both in-universe and out. Richard Cordery, playing Louis B. Mayer in flashbacks to Garland’s time working on The Wizard of Oz as a teenager, oozes quiet menace. He keeps Judy on drugs to quell her appetite, forbids her free time, and manufactures press events for the picture. He’s the personification of Hollywood: an industry that will spit you out just as easily as pick you up.
A particular scene that really stood out stars Mayer and a teenage Judy, played by Darci Shaw. Mayer pulls Judy into a barn set from Oz to have a “friendly” chat, and the shadows cast on the actors’ faces tell us all we need to know. Mayer reminds Judy of how they want her to be the loyal girl-next-door, and Judy’s voice gets softer and sadder as she apologizes and swears she’ll do better. The best part? The sunny weather can still be seen through the slats in the barn. Cordery’s chilling performance, as well as the shadowy cinematography (Ole Birkeland), make the scene work.
The film features several of Garland’s known songs, including “San Francisco” and “The Trolley Song.” Zellweger did her own singing and dancing for the role, and though her voice isn’t a complete recreation of Garland’s, several of her on-stage tics are. Many of Garland’s performances at the Talk of the Town were taped, and are available online. It’s fascinating to see what was pulled from those real-life performances.
Judy ultimately manages to capture a piece of what living with Judy Garland during those weeks of 1968 might have been like. She’s sardonic and in love, but is also desperately in need of help. When a doctor very seriously tells her she needs to start taking care of herself, she looks uncomfortable but chooses, ultimately, to ignore him. Judy has the ability to look away from what she doesn’t like, and because of who she is, it vanishes. However, her bad decisions do start to catch up to her. It’s left to the audience to decide how much of what occurred was her own fault, and how much of it was the Hollywood machine that stretched its greedy wings over the whole of her life.
dir. Rupert Goold
Opens Friday, 9/27 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and elsewhere.