Being Julia is about a 45-year-old stage actress who is tired of the role she’s playing, herself. Because, for Julia Lambert (Annette Bening), being herself is inextricably interwoven with being the diva that everybody assumes her to be. And, as she is no spring chicken, Julia doubts she can still effectively play the part.
Almost written for her, Bening shows both fragility and dignity, managing a hectic plot with glamour and aplomb. She fully inhabits this woman, who willfully blurs the lines of her life in theatre with her life off the stage. Director, Istvan Szabo, is transfixed with her dazzling smile and we are treated to many close-ups.
Around Julia, the soundtrack buzzes with tunes from the 1930s, and the screen throngs with period-appropriate costumes and accessories, among which Jeremy Irons’s delightful moustache must surely be counted.
Julia is still at the height of her stage career in London in 1938. Her shows are sold out and she is recognised and applauded wherever she goes. However, she can feel the decline coming and it’s driving her mad. “Everything’s so tedious,” she complains. “I want something to happen.”
Jeremy Irons is unusually chipper as Michael Gosselyn, Julia’s director and manager, who is also her husband. Though they have an almost grown-up son, their marital relations are, in Michael’s phrase, “terribly modern”. For male company, Julia prefers Lord Charles (Bruce Greenwood), but he declines to become her lover.
In the meantime, she falls for a stage-struck young American named Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) and, at least for a while, their affair gives Julia a second taste of youth. She throws herself into it with a mixture of calculation and abandon that is befitting to her thespian nature.
Most of the actors successfully pull off their roles and, although Bening is captivating as Julia, the film somehow lacks emotion. Sadly, Shaun Evans doesn’t really have the sexual magnetism required for this part – for a chap who is so sexy that a seasoned actress like Julia is thrown into such a spin, Evans is an odd choice.
In adapting W. Somerset Maugham’s Theatre for the screen, writer Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) has maintained much of Maugham’s cynicism about love in this movie. Being Julia may not make much psychological or dramatic sense, but Bening, pretending to be Julia (who is always pretending to be herself), is superb.