How can Miss Julie fail? August Strindberg’s tale of cross-class sexual politics is knee-deep in flirtations and commentary, boasts three fine actors and a stunning Northern Irish locale for a setting. And yet, fail it does. Liv Ullman’s adaptation robs the film of almost all erotic urgency. Not only is it a lesson in how not to adapt a play, it’s a lesson on how not to put on a play, period. Such is its turgidness; it’s a cautionary tale for all the wrong reasons.”
Strindberg’s 1888 masterwork is seen as one of the great naturalistic stage plays, focusing on its characters deepest torments and allowing the actors little frivolity or theatricality. Adherence to this kind of naturalism is admirable on stage, but it doesn’t quite cry out for a cinematic adaptation. Miss Julie has come to the big screen a number of times before (For best results, try Alf Sjöberg’s 1951 adaptation); like any adaptation, Ullman’s take needs to bring something new to the table to stand out. It brings precisely nothing, and ultimately undermines the fine material and performers by reducing it all to a snooze. The tale of John (Colin Farrell), a manservant to the father of Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain), and his flirtatious verbal sparring with her, is ripe with insight. Apart from John’s engagement to fellow servant Kathleen (Samantha Morton), the limitations of class structures are constantly rallied against, as lusts bubble under John’s rebuttal of Julie’s inappropriate flirtations. Yet the way Ullman shoots it stifles the mood, all long shots and barebones close-ups. A good director would find a way to overcome the stagebound nature of the play, but the most Ullman can offer are frequent interruptions by Schubert’s ‘Andante con Moto’, which quickly become as grating as the abuse of Ligeti’s piano in Eyes Wide Shut. Static rooms, bland lighting and unimaginative camera sound a dull death knell for Miss Julie’s intrigue, against which the three leads rally, but even they cannot overcome.
Material like this catnip to any actor worth their salt. It’s a testament to the skills of these actors that they excuse themselves from Ullman’s monotony with fiery performances. Any pleasure to be derived from this film is from these three alone. In the role of the the tempestuous title character, the fiery-haired Chastain mixes sensuality with aloofness to create a character both alluring and dangerous. Farrell matches her with an intense brooding indicative of his maturing as an actor in recent years. Morton’s role is the smallest (in relative terms), but is still a class in quiet obedience and heartbreak. Miss Julie is a worthwhile exercise for all three; if it were possible to see them reprise their roles on stage, it may well prove electrifying. In Ullman’s hands, unfortunately, the trio are reduced to a battle for onscreen survival; the film robs them of dramatic oxygen, leaving their fine performances adrift in a vacuum. Rarely is so much onscreen talent wasted quite so badly.