Adapted from the 1888 August Strindberg play, Liv Ullman’s Miss Julie transplants the politic-heavy cat-and-mouse game from the Swedish countryside to Ireland’s (the northern county of Fermanagh, to be exact). Taking place in a near-abandoned estate during the wee hours of Midsummer’s Eve 1890, an Irish valet (Colin Farrell) winds up in close quarters with the Anglo-Irish Baron’s winsome daughter (Jessica Chastain). Discussions of class, gender, and identity ensue with the pointedness of a sterling dagger in the sternum –“Perhaps there isn’t much difference between human beings and human beings,” mutters one of the servants.
Lithe of limb and elegant in flattering period blue dress (with cream undergarment peaking onto her freckled pale shoulders), the titular Miss Julie strides into the kitchen. Interrupting an indiscreet discussion between betrothed butler (Farrell) and maid (Samantha Morton), she asks the furrowed in brow and sleek in uniform Jonathan, her father’s manservant, to accompany her for the next dance. He acquiesces briefly, only to abandon her at the last set of doors leading to outside of the manor’s dramatic bubble.
Insulted, dejected, she returns to slap him and sets in motion an irreversible series of events. Twirled in tension, their sexually charged back-and-forth transgresses from the improper to the dire, leap-frogging through weighed perspective and common sense thanks to the aforementioned near-panting tension, their shared lack of sleep, and the “open their hearts and loins” mentality of the solstice (something akin to Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden and Athenian woods).
After Kathleen (Morton) adjourns to her bedroom for Jonathan-mandated rest, Julie catches him in the kitchen and orders him to drink beer with her and then kiss her leather boot (which Farrell does with the released repression few but a true Irishman could produce). Captivated by Jonathan’s higher-than-station propriety, Julie takes pleasure in uprooting his put-on politeness. In turn, Jonathan takes this chance to reach for the socially forbidden fruit.
Damaged, desperate, and proud in their own ways, Julie and Jonathan continue to pound at each other emotionally, until they finally reach an impasse of sorts, sexy sorts, after he professes a pent-up, years-long love for her. Unlike most other tales of seduction, the built-up tension doesn’t end there and it actually continues to build after the climax as the consequences of their actions set in. They are forced to decide whether to scatter the evidence of their indiscretions or collect the pieces to paste together a narrative worthy enough of runaway elopement (she wants a love story, he wants a business investment).
Both long for an answer, for themselves, for their stemming relationship, but neither is able to settle on a mutually agreeable, non-degrading outcome (a lady running away with the valet means scandal in the papers, she will not be his woman to be snickered at by the staff, and so on). Mid-negotiations, she just wants to hear him say that he loves her again, but instead, he coldly responds, “no feelings, or else all will be lost.” Discovering that Julie is a mere mortal after all, Jonathan slings the mud of “whore” at her. Realizing that it was not love but lust (for her body, for her class, for her money), Julie glares and acidly spits “I would like to shoot you like a dog.” From there, this back-and-forth plummets even further into madness, damned determinable madness (possibly the most universal quality of the human condition).
As the day breaks and natural light hits the kitchen tables, and after pious Kathleen asks whether they’d like to go to mass to wash away their sins, Jonathan retreats back into dogged routine, responding immediately to his newly returned master’s bell ring, and Julie quivers into a pale, frail, vulnerable mess with little where else to turn as “a fallen woman.” Though noble born, Julie will always be shackled by her feminine form. Though low born, Jonathan will always be strengthened by his masculine one. Theoretically, this could have put them on an even socio-political playing field, but as this story shows and history has proved time and time again, the Y chromosome remains a trump card.
Director-screenwriter (and Bergman muse) Liv Ullman directed with a preciseness that enhanced the cloistered source material without making the drama claustrophobic. She kept the camera close on her subjects for emotional connection, e.g. lingering on a softly-lit Chastain for poignancy and an oxygen-deprived Farrell for passion-filled urgency, but also utilized lush wideshots for literal and figurative perspective depth in and outside of the manor. The score highlights the thematic peaks and troughs through the plot’s tumult with period-fitting, heartrending string instrumentals.
The three actors give top-notch performances. Chastain melds from glamorous seductress to unholy mess of a girl to SCUM-worthy feminist, only to end on a poignancy rivaling the most fragile pre-Raphaelite subject. Farrell transforms from a frustrated boot-stomping pug of a man into a would-be romantic adventurer, only to give up when the going gets tough. Morton maintains a reserved yet forceful dignity and tempers the aforementioned duo’s outrageous behavior. Chastain and Farrell sustain a wondrous charisma throughout, acting both as sparring and dance partners in one of the most dysfunctional yet enthralling waltzes to ever hit the big screen.
A thought-provoking, beautiful period piece with strong dramatic turns, Miss Julie has some pretty strong Best Picture Oscar nom potential, with Ullman and Chastain sure to garner some awards buzz and Farrell possibly getting that career bump he’s been needing for the past decade.
Striking all of the right albeit tense emotional and dramatic chords, Miss Julie is a must-see and one of the top highlights from this year’s TIFF.