Miss Julie (2014)

Miss Julie (2014)
  • Time: 129 min
  • Genre: Drama | Romance
  • Director: Liv Ullmann
  • Cast: Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton


Over the course of a midsummer night in Fermanagh in 1890, an unsettled daughter of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy encourages her father’s valet to seduce her.

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  • Liv Ullmann’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play, Miss Julie, is replete with painterly compositions, none more striking than that final overhead shot. As a film, Miss Julie is very rarely in darkness but, make no mistake, this is a long walk into the depths of despair. It is also a film that contains base and bestial emotions that are unleashed with volcanic force.

    “She did not seem created for the sorrows of this world,” little Julie reads these prophetic words before roaming around her apparently deserted manor. She steps out of the window and makes her way into the woods. When she emerges moments later and steps back through the window, it is midsummer night in late 19th century Ireland. She is fully grown but it is as if time has passed with her remaining frozen in her childhood days. When we see Jessica Chastain as Miss Julie step out from the shadows and into the kitchen, several things have already been established during an exchange between Cathleen the maid (Samantha Morton) and John the valet (Colin Farrell). For one, the servants would seem to be engaged, though it’s evident Cathleen cares more for him that he does for her. He harbours both bitterness and admiration for his mistress Miss Julie, whom he finds controlling, a touch scandalous (she was seen dancing with the gamekeeper), and attractive (describing her as elegant and magnificent).

    John calls Miss Julie strange, and she is a strange creature who regards John as her plaything. She wants John to dance with her. He demurs, having already promised a dance to Cathleen. Miss Julie pulls rank. “As you command, Miss Julie,” he is forced to reply. “I’m at your service.” He escorts her upstairs, but refuses to go past the threshold. Yet both will cross far more dangerous boundaries of class and gender. She demands – get her a drink, pick some lilacs, kiss her shoe – and he chafes. She orders, he relents. She talks of wanting to step down from her pedestal, he advises against it. “Don’t step down, Miss Julie, they will say you fell.” He is very aware of society’s regard and how rumours can ruin reputations. He confesses of having seen her when he was a boy and almost dying of love for her. She is moved, but he knows his place. “You are everything I can never have,” he acknowledges.

    Then they are in his bedroom. Then they are sitting on his bed. It does not matter who seduces whom – sex shatters the fairy tale and the illusions they have put on for one another. Her fragility is uncovered and he is exposed for the callous social climber he is. She pleads for a kind word, but he has nothing but insults and recriminations. She has no one but herself to blame for her downfall, he rages. Didn’t he tell her not to drink? Didn’t he warn her she was playing with fire? She wanted to step down – well, she’s lowered herself now. “We are the same now,” he sneers.

    Ullmann mostly confines the film to the kitchen and the servants’ quarters – Miss Julie would seem a difficult play to open up – and it makes for suffocating viewing. Stripping the play of its minor characters also contributes to the airless quality that permeates the film. Indeed, the almost methodically deliberate manner in which the film unfolds can render it a bit soporific, but one cannot help but be thoroughly roused when the battle between John and Miss Julie reaches fever pitch.

    Farrell may be a tad too intense at times. The intensity doesn’t quite fit the earlier scenes when John’s reluctant submission almost becomes cartoonish in his playing. However, that same intensity serves him well in the later scenes when John’s naked and rabid ambition is on full display. Chastain is seductive, vulnerable, capricious, burning with lust, and shellshocked with horror. It is an impressive portrayal, full of whiplash-inducing shifts of emotion. It’s especially remarkable since Ullmann has bewilderingly omitted or made oblique many of the character’s motivations – an emancipated mother who taught her to think like a man and never be a slave to one, an absentee father whose presence nevertheless looms large, a fiancé who would not submit to her demeaning whims. Somehow Chastain fills in all those blanks, delivering yet another bravura performance.​

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