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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
dir Istvan Szabo
scr Ronald Harwood
with Annette Bening, Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon, Bruce Greenwood, Juliet Stevenson, Miriam Margolyes, Maury Chaykin, Catherine Charlton, Shaun Evans, Sheila McCarthy, Lucy Punch, Julian Richings
release US 15.Oct.04, UK 19.Nov.04
Dancing the night away: Bening and her leading man, who isn't named in the production notes.
Based on Somerset Maugham's novel Theatre, this lively tale from 1930s London features a magnificent central performance by Bening to go with its engaging and raucous storyline.
In her early 40s, Julia Lambert (Bening) is starting to realise that her days as the leading light on the London stage are numbered. Her producer husband (Irons) tries uselessly to placate her, but she is urged on by memories of her mentor (Gambon) to capitalise on her gifts as a true drama queen. Then an affair with a young American sparks her inner youth, as does some on-stage rivalry with his blonde bimbo on the side. Soon Julia is back on form. But does even she know when she's acting?
Harwood's script captures Maugham's twisted narrative beautifully, drawing us in slowly by revealing truths beneath the surfaces and filling the screen with extremely colourful characters. It badly hedges the romantic side of the story--dropping hints about sexuality and attraction and manipulation all over the place but never paying any of it off. So we're left with the theatrical elements of the plot, which are absolutely brilliant.
The cast seizes these meaty characters with life and spark. Bening is absolutely wonderful; this is perhaps her finest performance, which is saying a lot. And the character gets more interesting as the film progresses--more vulnerable, vicious, colourful, desperate and hilarious. Around her, no one else has much of a chance really (which is the whole point), but each side character has moments that are startlingly telling, and also very funny.
Szabo directs it all just a bit unforgivingly--although everyone looks fabulous, they also look their age! But the period has a nice lived-in feel to it that avoids his usual glowing-golden production values. And he captures the energy, humour and emotion in the story beautifully. This is a film about people who are, quite literally, desperate for attention. And whoever puts on the best performance wins. We know from the start who's going to steal the show, and watching it happen makes for one of the most entertaining films of the year.
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