Jessie Buckley

Judy

03/10/19

The ‘Judy’ of the title is, of course, Judy Garland, and this rather downbeat film, directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge, concentrates not on the gloss and glitter of Hollywood, but on a less-celebrated period of her life: her five-week residency at London’s Talk of the Town, which proved to be – quite literally – the end of her career.

It’s 1969, long after her super-stardom and more than a decade after her cinematic comeback with A Star is Born. Judy (Renée Zellweger) is struggling to make ends meet. Addicted to barbiturates and hopelessly in debt to the IRS, she is virtually unemployable in her homeland, reduced to dragging her children, Lorna and Joey, onstage with her to perform song and dance routines for a hundred dollars a night. Judy’s ex-husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) is understandably concerned for the welfare of his kids, but Judy is determined to prove herself a good mother, despite never having had the luxury of a decent role model in her own childhood.

But then the offer from Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) rears its head and, sensing a way out of the corner she’s painted herself into, Judy heads off to England, reluctantly leaving her children in the care of their father. There are problems from the moment she arrives: she refuses to rehearse for the show and keeps complaining of ‘headaches’- but her no-nonsense PA, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), does at least manage to get her onstage for the opening night. Judy goes down a storm and things look promising… but of course, as history attests, from there, it’s anything but plain sailing.

The first thing to say about Judy is that Zellweger is totally convincing in the lead role, nailing Garland’s tragic self-doubt and vulnerability with aplomb and somehow even managing to look and sound uncannily like the real person. But a great performance doesn’t automatically make a great film. That, I’m afraid, is more of a mixed bag.

I like the flashbacks to the Hollywood years, where young Judy (Darci Shaw) does battle with the odious Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a man who thinks nothing of working a twelve year old relentlessly around the clock, knowing full well that she has to exist on a diet of ‘pep pills’ in order to keep going. Later on, there’s also a charming plot strand where Garland befriends a couple of gay fans (Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerquira) and ends up back at their flat, cooking them an omelette, which makes them, I suppose, the original ‘friends of Dorothy.’

But unfortunately, so much of the narrative is devoted to Garland, the other characters barely get a look-in. The super-talented Jessie Buckley, for instance, is second-billed here, but we learn virtually nothing about Rosalyn; and why bother to employ the mighty Michael Gambon if all he gets to do is sit in the audience and look disgruntled? Finn Whittrock also struggles to make anything of his role as ‘unsuitable husband number five,’ Micky Deans. Was this man a cruel opportunist looking for his own personal rake-off? Was he just lousy at doing business? Did he have genuine affection for Judy? There’s not enough information here to let me make a judgement on any of those questions and that’s a shame.

Still, if, like me, you have a soft spot for the divine Ms Garland, this is worth catching for that sublime central performance. Zellweger does rousing versions of some of Judy’s best-remembered songs and manages to capture her distinctive vocal inflexions perfectly. And, unless you’re made of stone, you’ll probably have a tear in your eye at the film’s unexpectedly redemptive conclusion.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Wild Rose

19/03/19

After her confident showing in Beast, it only seemed a matter of time before we saw Jessie Buckley in a star-making role – and Wild Rose might just be the film to do it for her. As Glaswegian wannabe country star, Rose-Lynn Harlen, she positively owns the screen, even when starring opposite professional scene-stealer, Julie Walters.

Rose-Lynn has long held an ambition: to go to Nashville and become a star of country music (not country and western, mind; that’s a whole different kettle of corn!). But when we first meet her, she’s in the process of being released from a year’s spell in prison, where she’s been sent for throwing a bag of heroin over the wall to one of the inmates. Issued with an ankle tag, which means she has to be home by seven o’clock every evening, she heads off to her mother, Marion (Walters), who has been looking after Rose-Lynn’s two young children in her absence. The children barely know Rose and it’s clear she needs to spend time learning to be their mother again – but those long-held ambitions don’t leave much room for anything so mundane as parenthood.

Rose-Lynn soon discovers that while she’s been away, her regular gig at a Glasgow country music venue has been taken over by someone far less talented than her, and she can’t perform in the evenings anyway. So, at Marion’s urging, she takes a day-job as a cleaner for the wealthy and influential Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who, once appraised of Rose’s singing skills, decides to use her considerable clout to give her cleaner’s stalled career a boost – but it eventually becomes apparent that the only person who can really help Rose-Lynn achieve her ambitions is… Rose-Lynn herself.

The film is directed by Tom Harper and cannily scripted by Nicole Taylor, and is astonishingly sure-footed throughout. Every time the story threatens to edge too close to cliché, Taylor cannily subverts it and steers things in a much more interesting direction. Here are well-drawn working-class characters, who are never allowed to be the butt of cheap jokes, but emerge as fully drawn, sympathetic people with real lives to live. Okenedo’s character is also a delight, someone who’s prepared to give everything she’s got to help someone better their situation.

Of course, the icing on the cake is that Buckley has an absolutely amazing voice, delivering every song with real passion and vigour, whether she’s standing mournfully on the stage of the Grand Ole’ Opry or belting out a humdinger in a hometown nightclub.  Oh, and look out for a cameo from ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, playing himself with absolute conviction.

Wild Rose is a genuine treat, a country music spectacular that never slows down long enough to drag its cowgirl heels. Miss this one and weep!

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Beast

16/04/18

Beast is a well-crafted psychological thriller with a twisty-turny storyline that keeps you gripped and guessing right up to the very last frame. The first full-length feature from writer/director Michael Pearce, it’s set on Jersey and exploits the island’s unique atmosphere to great effect. Make no mistake, this is an assured debut from a talented young film maker.

Moll (Jessie Buckley) is a troubled young woman haunted by a violent incident in her childhood. Years later, she’s still paying for her youthful transgressions, tethered to the family home by her domineering mother, Hilary (Geraldine James), and forced to provide care for her father, who is going through the early stages of dementia. Little wonder then that she chooses to bail out of her own birthday party in order to head to the local nightclub to chase up some drinks and a little action. On her way home, she bumps into Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a rough-hewn local handyman, who, it transpires, has also broken a few rules in the past. To Moll, he personifies the idea of escape and the two of them begin a passionate affair, much to the undisguised disgust of Moll’s mother and her straight-laced older sister, Polly (Sharon Tarbet). They are all too aware that a spate of brutal murders is currently unfolding on the island and they make no secret of the fact that Pascal is their number one suspect…

What might so easily have been a run-of-the-mill murder mystery is elevated into something much more profound as Moll’s dreams, preoccupations and hangups are expertly brought into the mix, maintaining a hazy borderline between what’s real and what might only be imagined. At various points in the story, I find my suspicions switching back and forth like a ride on a roller coaster with malfunctioning brakes – and, if there’s a certain ambiguity about the film’s conclusion, it’s no bad thing, offering plenty to discuss – and maybe even argue about – long after the closing credits have rolled. Both Buckley and Flynn (the latter also currently carving out a successful career as a folk singer) acquit themselves well and, as the ice-cold, uptight mother, Geraldine James is her usual brilliant self.

Shown here in an Unlimited screening, the film gets a regular release towards the end of the month and is well worth your attention.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney