- Colin Fraser
FOUR STARS In need of cash and the chance to straighten out her life, Judy Garland heads to London.
Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley
Britain, it seems, is the place old stars go to die. Consider Gloria Grahame (Annette Benning in FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL) or Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in STAN & OLLIE) who toured a post-war UK in the hope of propping up their failing careers. Joining them is Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) on a swan-song tour of London in the late 1960s. The former child star, now an ageing, ‘difficult’ drug addict, is in need of hard cash. One of her ex-husbands has sought custody of their children and without a steady income or a roof of her own, he’s likely to get them. Garland’s agent suggests London where her star still burns brightly and audiences are eager to hear ‘Dorothy’ sing.
This rather harrowing biopic is a solid outing from director Rupert Goold. He captures the sunshine of LA and the promise of London at the height of the swinging sixties and uses them to form a perfectly juxtaposed backdrop for a woman in free fall. By this point in her life, Garland is little more than a slow-moving train wreck who can barely get through a show without becoming tomorrow’s headlines: whether that’s from abusing staff, abusing the audience or passing out on stage. There’s not a lot to recommend her as a mother.
Yet despite the downbeat narrative (it’s no secret that Garland died not long after the events in this film), Goold and debut screenwriter Tom Edge find the magic, the sparkle that made Judy a household name, an artist beloved by millions. We’re aided by their investment in realising the horrific treatment that Garland suffered at the hands of studio wranglers as a young woman. #metoo doesn’t come close (although there is a wonderfully creepy moment when Louis B Mayer strays deep into Weinstein country). Consequently our hearts open up to Garland’s pain. It’s the beat of Edge’s screenplay as he finds many touching and poignant ways to explore her life.
He and Goold are helped in no small way by a commanding (read Oscar baiting) performance by Zellweger who simply shines in the role. She sings, she dances and she doesn’t use prosthetics; it makes for a much more legitimate experience that, again, brings us closer to Garland. No doubt Zellweger brings plenty of her own frustrations as an actor emerging from ‘the dark zone’ (Hollywood has scant interest in woman aged 35-50 and treats them little better today than it did in the 1930's).
Add some terrific songs backed by excellent staging and JUDY arrives as a must-see for any student of Garland, Hollywood legends, troubled artists or victims of abuse.