What a shame that Jessica Chastain's fiery turn in "Miss Julie" will
likely go unnoticed by Academy voters. Director Liv Ullmann's complex
take on August Strindberg's early feminist play may be too stagey for
some, but this is Best Actress material for Chastain, who injects
vitality into a repressed 19th-century woman who falls from grace.
Chastain's electrifying performance places among the great female
dramatic turns in a literary tragedy, from Nina Pens Rode in "Gertrud"
to Nastassja Kinski in "Tess" and Isabelle Huppert in "Madame Bovary."
So why is no one talking about it?
"Miss Julie" premiered at TIFF 2014 to unenthusiastic response. Perhaps too loyal to the original 1888 Swedish
stage tragedy, Ullmann's version confines the three-character drama to a
secluded estate over the course of one Midsummer's Eve, a dusk-til-dawn
period of Dionysian decadence and blurred class lines.
Chastain relishes the more unhinged and rapacious facets of this meaty
role, sinking under the skin of a Count's daughter whose housebound
boredom and twisty desires spark an explosion of emotions between her
and the story's two other characters: Jean, a worldly valet (Colin
Farrell) whose cultural capital belies his lowly class position, and the
devout servant (Samantha Morton) to whom he is woefully engaged. All
three actors are astounding, by the way.
Ullmann's cold-blooded direction doesn't stop the ravishing, redheaded
beauty from devouring one poetic monologue after another, while
telegraphing Julie's often wildly contradictory feelings through gesture
and movement. When she's not bursting into servants' quarters with
entitled hauteur, or flying off the walls in the horrifically beautiful
climax, Julie walks with a sort of impeded gait, limping with the
psychic burden of class paralysis. She longs for abasement in Jean's
arms, but hesitates to throw away the creature comforts of her pampered
The relationships get more complicated after a shattering
consummation scene. Who's more the abject lover: the servant who deigns
to approach the lady of the house, or the haughty lady who seduces him?
It's hardly a coincidence that Chastain's director was married to the
master of women-led psychodramas. Ingmar Bergman was well-attuned to
brave actresses, none more than Ullmann herself. At the AFI premiere of
"A Most Violent Year," Chastain told me that she has more than once
chased the attentions of another European auteur with a predilection for
the female psyche, Michael Haneke. I hope he receives his screener of