Starring Jessica Chastain, Collin Farrell and Samantha Morton
Adapted from Strindberg’s play, and directed by Liv Ullmann
Occasionally a film grabs and won’t let go. Miss Julie, Liv Ullmann’s carefully constructed adaptation of The August Strindberg play is such a film. Three days after viewing, it has not let go. It reminds us that, as Farrell’s character so vividly states, the things we long for, love, acceptance, a good outcome can come at a high price. On love he says “I liked and it made me sick I could not eat or drink because of love. I don’t use that word.”
Strindberg’s searing insight into human nature is at the root of the film’s power. Familiar and recognisable behaviours and illuminating truths, often painful, open our eyes to our frailty and greed. The performances are minimalist, hardwired to get under our skin while dishing out the cold hard facts of human existence.
Chastain, Farrell and Morton are at the top of their game in Miss Julie, handling complex emotions, loaded dialogue and the fast-paced chain of events. They’re acting athletes, running a marathon and at war with one another.
Its midsummer’s night 1890 in a rural Irish estate. Miss Julie is the daughter of the absent baron, and she acts the part, demanding flawless service and propriety from her servants even as she crosses all boundaries in search of her own meaningless conquests. The cook Kathleen (Morton) and the chauffeur (Farrell) wince under her pettiness but take it. It’s demeaning.
The lower classes are outdoors celebrating an annual ritual of wine, women and song, but Miss Julie, friendless, is bored. She sets upon John using her social power over him as a battering ram, pushing and goading him into kissing her boot, at first, and on to more humiliating acts. Soon John is polishing her boots with a fearsome expression of despair and hatred. It’s a loaded scene – his anger is barely stifled and her caustic sadism comes into full play.
Meanwhile John’s intended, Kathleen is weighing their crossing of societal lines and when she hears them making love and John’s betrayal. Even so she sees Miss Julie as the victim, always to be protected from the realities of life outside the ivory tower.
Miss Julie sets our teeth on edge. Her toxic entitlement diminishes everything. Eventually, she begins to feel tainted and lost and throws back the drink. John hates himself for considering her invitation to sex but he has an ulterior motive that unmasks his true, frightening nature.
The power shifts violently between the three characters as this awful midsummer night progresses. Who is the master and who is enslaved? He’s ruined, and shakes and trembles telling Miss Julie she is everything he can never have. She is then ruined by shame and defeat at her own actions. He says “no feelings or everything is lost”. Things are already lost.
They play within the strictures of the time and place. When the play was written, the master and servant roles were strictly adhered to – so this was radical. Today it looks abusive, treacherous and oh, so human.
If you can stand the constant emotional impacts of this excellent film, by all means, take a look. If you like your romance sweet then Cinderella’s playing nearby.