- 07 Oct 19
Renée Zellweger shines despite superficiality of Judy Garland biopic
There's an image in Rupert Goold's biopic after Judy Garland gives a powerhouse rendition of 'By Myself'. "I'll go / I'll go by myself alone", Garland belts out to a packed auditorium, her voice soaring, the crowd adoring. But there's a cut to Garland alone in her dressing room later, frail body crumpled over a dressing table, cigarette in hand, loneliness and smoke rising amongst the congratulatory flowers.
It's startling in its sadness, but it's an emotional jolt that Goold never quite reaches again, instead presenting a sanitised and rote examination of the final year of Garland's life. Set in 1968, Garland agrees to a London concert residency, to earn some desperately needed money. Yet she skips rehearsal, often turns up drunk and stumbling, and pays more attention to her new younger lover, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock).
As Garland, Renée Zellweger is sublime, utilising her innately vulnerable and empathetic gaze, while evoking Garland's mannerisms: the mischievous jokes, the manic fidgeting - and the frail physicality that made her seem older than her 46 years. In addition, Zellweger's vocal performances summon Garland's ageing voice and desperation to be loved, along with stunning flashes of magic.
Zellweger's performance is more layered than the film, which remains superficial and conventional. The wretchedness of Garland's addiction and depression feel dampened, as does her chemistry-free relationship with Deans. Flashbacks to a teenage Judy (Darci Shaw) being starved and medicated are too prettily shot to convey how horrific these practices were; though a Weinstein-lookalike figure of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer nods to the persistent exploitation of women in Hollywood.
Jessie Buckley is severely underused as Garland's London minder Rosalyn, but captures her character's keenly observant gaze, both impatient and sympathetic.
One of the most poignant sequences sees Garland have dinner with a gay couple, who are endearingly overwhelmed to have their idol in their living room, eating an omelette. The link between Garland's death and the Stonewall riots is laboured, but the scene allows Zellweger to convey the inner life and public legacy of Garland: lonely and desiring connection, mischievous and melancholy, and an enduring comfort for others who felt ostracised and in need of hope.