Director: Liv Ullmann
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Theatrical” is often used as a bad word when it comes to movies, but that’s unfair. Some of history’s first films were (heavily, gruesomely hacked-up) adaptations of plays, and there’s a charming calm that comes from movies that simply throw a bunch of talented actors onto a handful of locations and let them run through the drama classics. There aren’t even a lot of movies these days like “Miss Julie,” the fourth-ever film adaptation of August Strindberg’s searing class tete-a-tete, with Jessica Chastain as a bored aristo attempting to canoodle with a family servant, John (Colin Farrell). The two doing this on-stage would last but a theatrical run, but a film record of it lasts (theoretically) forever.
But this “Miss Julie” isn’t as clean-cut as that. It’s a quietly (and sometimes loudly) chaotic work, problematic but noticeably, searingly angry. It doesn’t update the play (though it does relocate it to Ireland), but it is meant to remind us of the classism that still exists and the even wider gap between rich and poor. Not that this is an eat-the-rich screed. “Miss Julie” is a tough text to pin down, as its sympathies tend to drift from one side to the other. This one’s not cool with either character. Chastain is a need monster who preys on John partly to mess with him. Farrell gives John his trademark deeply sincere sad eyes — which can be so embarrassing when misapplied, as in this year’s flying horse-heavy “Winter’s Tale” — but his gentle nature can easily slide into passive-aggressive sadism. They’re both playing parts, but underneath her exterior lies weakness and under his is cruelty.
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The director and adapter is as much a star as her stars: Liv Ullmann, the actress and director who has never even tried to fully escape the shadow of Ingmar Bergman, her longtime collaborator, lover and friend. Two of the five movies she’s directed have been Bergman scripts, and Bergman cut his teeth working with Swedish director Alf Sjoberg, who did his own “Miss Julie” film in 1951. Her filmmaking style faintly resembles Bergman’s own chatty work: There are plenty of shot-reverse shots, but the takes hold longer than usual, letting the actors get everything out before cutting. She doesn’t even try to rein them in. Chastain is encouraged to go lusty and earthy, especially in the final stretch, when Miss Julie loses it, gets ahold of some fresh bird blood and starts wailing about. Chastain has never gone this loose cannon before, and you can sense a private thrill at not caring how precise she is, at going wild and getting close to embarrassing herself. What she does is a kind of freedom.
Other times Ullmann’s “Miss Julie” is simply spotty. Even at John’s most evil, Farrell can seem too sincere. He tends to be at his best when playing jerks, but John is a role that should meld both his extremes and Farrell keeps getting stuck in good guy mode, loudly pouting his way through lines that need a rougher edge. It’s an unwieldy production, sometimes thrillingly crazy and sometimes just unwieldy; it doesn’t help that the third character — Samantha Morton’s fellow servant — is reduced to a combination doormat and scolding bore. (It’s not Morton’s fault; she simply has nothing to do.) Then again, this “Miss Julie,” for the better, will never be confused with mere Masterpiece Theater. It’s alive in its imperfections.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge