Directed by Liv Ullmann
Opens December 5 at the Landmark Sunshine
Let’s be clear for the uninitiated: Miss Julie’s acid dialogue and sardonic twists burn down to the bone of costume drama’s fattened arm, its darkness closer to original-series Upstairs Downstairs than to polished one-percenter porno Downton Abbey. Adapting Strindberg’s classic naturalist play, Liv Ulmann transposes the Swedish setting to rural Northern Ireland: amidst the bacchanalia of midsummer’s eve, the baron’s daughter Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) aggressively flirts with her father’s handsome valet Jean (Colin Farrell); initially resistant, Jean escalates these exchanges, and their mutual transgression blurs the boundaries between master and servant. The “perverseness” of this act is underscored not only by their subsequent cruelty towards each other, but by Jean’s pious fiancée Christine (Samantha Morton), who is repeatedly told to go to bed (like a good little doggie) or locked away in a room while overhearing everything. (She eventually gets out and gives them both a stern but futile talking to.)
But to sing the praises of the story and dialogue is to solely praise the long-dead playwright, and this adaptation is truly defined by Ulmann’s direction and the actors’ performances. Thanks to the tonal range the dusky light affords, there are many instances when a character’s body effortlessly blends into the manor house that circumscribes their behavior: Morton’s cook uniform gets swallowed up by the stone staircase leading to the servants’ quarters, and Chastain’s mane bleeds into the kitchen’s wood paneling. Neither fully belonging to cinema or theater, Chastain’s unrelentingly anxious performance (that harkens back to her 2012 stage role against Dan “Cousin Matthew” Stevens in The Heiress) imbues every impulsive bad decision with painfully realistic flair: similarly, Julie’s not an innocent, but has gotten herself into a situation where she must bat outside her league. Farrell’s facial contortions impressively match that of his character’s autobiography, and it’s saddening to think how infrequently his performances arrive in stateside theaters.
Aside from the actors, Ulman’s other wise decisions was to not dramatize the characters’ remembrances. We never “see” Jean’s time working at a Swiss hotel, and are only given the story he tells. While this may be a refusal to break with theatrical tradition, in reality it just emphasizes how utterly claustrophobic and museum-like this household is. All apologies, Mr. Fellowes—you can polish the silver, but it’s never the same thing as owning it.