As the great Julia Lambert, the toast of the London stage in the early '30s, she's struck by a premonition of fading vitality at the grand age of forty. Worries of it bring her close to a breakdown as she begins to desperately search for other stimuli to give her life meaning. She carries on a dialogue with her muse, Jimmy Langton (Michael Gambon), her dead drama coach that she summons up as an imagined presence to tell her when she's going well or going astray.
More tangible is the guidance of Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), her canny, pipe-puffing producer who happens also to be her husband in a marriage of both convenience and mutual respect. In the business of theatre, he is her truest artistic and career guide. He also recognizes an actor's insecurity when he sees it and, knowingly or not, provides a spark for her spirit by introducing her to twentysomething American Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans). This lad's admiration of the famous lady is both a balm to her sagging spirits and a tightrope of opportunism.
In the picture, as close confidant and dependable friend, is Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood) who provides comfort through thick or thin. And, while true friendships are rare for the star, the one who knows her on the most vulnerable level is her dresser Evie (Juliet Stevenson). In the dressing-room banter between them, often consisting of mutual derision, Evie serves as a sounding board and pressure release for Sylvia's nerves, anger and disappointments. When her lover's philandering ways become more than suspicion, she collapses emotionally, only to revive with a sense of command that makes for a brilliant third act that focuses on her wicked genius. With it, she produces a bit of dramatized vengeance that sets things straight onstage and off. Bening pulls off a performance of stunning style and juicy enjoyment. That is, if you're on her Julia's side, and we all are!
From a novella (Theatre) by W. Somerset Maugham that could easily be construed as dated, screenwriter Ronald Harwood achieves a rich and balanced adaptation with dialogue that has the sparkle of humor and good wit for today. Paced to perfection, it characterizes the time as well as the personalities. István Szabó's direction wastes no motion in keeping us fully engaged by a fine style and sophistication led by superbly crafted and tempered acting. Lajos Koltai's lighting enhances everything before his lens.
Kudos and bouquets to all but most especially to Bening for a delectably meaty job of saucing up the drama and for an inimitable screen presence that can only be faulted for not showing up as often on our screens as her talent would justify, if not demand. Bravisima!
Bening, Irons, and director István Szabó offer commentary on the DVD, which also includes deleted scenes, and two behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Be like Annette.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 11th November 2004
Box Office USA: $7.7M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Sony Pictures Classics, Serendipity Point Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Fresh: 94 Rotten: 29
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: István Szabó
Screenwriter: Ronald Harwood
Starring: Michael Gambon as Jimmie Langton, Annette Bening as Julia Lambert, Jeremy Irons as Michael Gosselyn, Michael Culkin as Rupert, Lucy Punch as Avice Crichton, Max Irons as Curtain Call Boy, Miriam Margolyes as Dolly de Vries
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