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Review: Judy

February 8, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Judy Garland gets the biopic treatment in director Rupert Goold’s Judy, a good movie built around a great performance from Renée Zellweger. The film received a pair of Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Makeup and Hairstyling, with Zellweger being the frontrunner to win in the former category.

The film opens with a flashback to Judy Garland (played in these sequences by Darci Shaw) as a child actress on the set of the classic 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz, with MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) essentially reasserting the studio’s ownership over her, reminding her that she is nothing without them and she would be easily replaceable were it not for her voice.

We then jump ahead roughly thirty years to 1968, where Judy Garland (Zellweger) has just finished performing a show with her two kids Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), but is running out of money. After losing custody of her kids to ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), she takes up residency performing in London, England for five weeks to earn some money and prove employment, in hopes of getting them back. This is where much of Judy takes place, as the film charts her burgeoning relationship with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who would become her fifth husband.

Make no mistakes, Zellweger’s powerhouse performance is the reason to see this film. She perfectly embodies Judy Garland, delivering a star turn that is fierce, fragile and ultimately heartbreaking. While flawless hair and makeup work helps her bear a striking resemblance to her real life counterpart, it’s a performance that goes far beyond a hollow impersonation, with her instead offering a fully fleshed out characterization of Garland nearing the end of her time on earth in the last year of her life, that allows us to feel the full weight of her internal struggles caused by having spent her life in the public spotlight.

Throughout the film, we see flashbacks showing how young Judy’s handlers exact control over every aspect of her life, including how she looks, what she eats and who she is seen with, giving her pills to control her weight and mood which fuel the addictions she struggles with later in life. The film does a good job of showing how the traumatic experiences that Garland had as a child continue to effect her, and these scenes give context to the pain that we feel so deeply in Zellweger’s portrayal.

The screenplay by Tom Edge, which was adapted from Peter Quilter’s stage play End of the Rainbow, does take some dramatic licenses, including a subplot involving a gay couple who are fans of Garland and meet her after a show. While fictitious, it’s a storyline that, like the sequence with Churchill on the underground in Darkest Hour, works well within the story to show a different side of Garland behind the scenes. This subplot also does a wonderful job of paying tribute to how important a figure Judy Garland was to the gay community, something that I’m really happy was included in the film.

Structurally, Judy is a pretty standard biopic, but this is a fine framework upon which to build an engaging dramatic portrait of Judy Garland, and the film wisely centres itself around Zellweger, who delivers a transformative performance in the title role. In another impressive aspect of her work here, Zellweger also does all of her own singing, perfectly approximating Garland’s voice to deliver stirring renditions of classic tunes like “The Trolley Song” and “Get Happy.”

The ending of the film is also quite touching, built around a performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that brings things full circle from that unsettling opening scene on the set of The Wizard of Oz, only now Garland has the love and support of others that she didn’t have back then to help her through. It’s a moving note upon which to end this emotional tribute to a showbiz legend.

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