Annette Bening gives top-notch performance.
By JOE BALTAKE
Movies about revenge are usually of the "Death Wish" variety. You know, somebody's wife or girlfriend is kidnapped, assaulted or worse, thereby giving the hero a good enough excuse to take justice into his own hands and setting up the audience to scream for blood.
But director Istvan Szabo's "Being Julia" is a revenge film of a very different sort. For one thing, no one is physically harmed in it. It's set in the genteel, rarified world of the theater, a la "All About Eve." It is very funny -- articulate and urbane -- as it delineates a spoiled diva's plans to get even with her complacent husband, a former lover and the lover's new girlfriend -- all at the same time.
Julia Lambert, brought to life in a wonderfully witty performance by Annette Bening, is the central figure in Szabo's film, based on W. Somerset Maugham's 1937 novella, "Theater." Julia is the kind of woman who's always "on," she's always acting -- whether onstage or off. Hissy fits are the norm for her.
She is Margo Channing, Norma Desmond, Mama Rose and Baby Jane Hudson all rolled into one. Which means she is willful and conniving, but also charismatic as all get out. This is a choice role, and Bening tears into it. She acts up a storm, and she does something only an observant, intelligent actress could do: She puts on a display of bad acting -- overacting -- that takes a very specific kind of talent. It's not easy being bad on purpose.
Ready to move on
As the film opens, Julia is into another one of her West End long runs, and she's bored. It shows because stasis has taken over her performance. The audience isn't aware of this, but Julia is -- and so is her manager-husband, Michael Gosselyn (an aloof Jeremy Irons). Julia demands that he close the show -- even though it's a success -- so that she can rest up before her next hit.
Her state of mind isn't helped by the fact that she's recently been more or less dumped by her best friend, Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood), who says their platonic affair cannot go any further because he's gay. Julia had hopes because she and Michael have an open marriage.
A new suitor
Around this time, a feckless young American admirer named Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) joins Julia and Michael's theater troupe as an accountant. He adores Julia. And he pursues her with all the subtlety of, well, an immature young American. Julia goes through the motions of resisting him, but eventually falls into bed with Tom and discovers that their sex life rejuvenates her artistically. But Tom is callow and he's a cad. He is soon dallying with a young actress named Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch), who is this film's Eve Harrington.
Avice wants it all -- Julia's roles, Julia's fame and Julia's husband -- and Tom serves as an unwitting vehicle for her ambition. But she's no match for Julia, who plays along with the charade.
No stretch for Szabo
Szabo may be more noted for such substantial films as "Mephisto" (1981) and "Sunshine" (1999), but he's also dabbled in cinematic trifles at least once before. "Meeting Venus," a little-known 1991 film starring Glenn Close as a high-maintenance opera diva not unlike Julia Lambert, is very close to "Being Julia" in both style and temperament. There's a future double-bill here.
Also, movie-trivia fans might be interested in knowing about an earlier German-language version of Maugham's material -- "Adorable Julia," directed by Alfred Weidenmann in 1962 and starring the great Lili Palmer and Charles Boyer in the Bening and Irons roles and Jean Sorel, a French matinee idol from the '60s, as Tom Fennel.
X"Adorable Julia" is available on home video.