Hands up if Over The Rainbow always makes you well up. You’re not alone. Judy Garland may have died 50 years ago, but her legacy has never faded. “You won’t forget me, will you?” are among her final lines, shot in intimate close up, in Rupert Goold’s Judy. And the answer is “No. We never will.”
With a career that spanned 40 years, her family put her on stage at the age of just two and her mother pushed her into movies, only for her young life to be manipulated by studio mogul Louis B Meyer. It affected her for ever, and we see the eventual results in the film, which concentrates on her time in London in 1968 when she performed in a series of sold-out concerts, purely because she was broke. It was a time when she had to confront her many problems – getting older and the effect on her voice, her relationship with her children and ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), her drink and drug consumption and that a last-ditch attempt at happiness with her fifth husband Micky Deans (Finn Wittrock) wasn’t quite the heaven she dreamed of.
It’s a film that lives or dies on the strength of the performance of its leading lady. We all know it’s Renee Zellweger and we’ve all heard that she’s great. It’s true. This is easily the best thing she’s done for ages, quite possibly ever, re-creating the aging star, giving her an appealing fragility and vulnerability, so that even when she’s spiralling out of control, those around her are still loyal and prepared to forgive her anything. Not only that, but her fans still love her regardless too. Zellweger gives us an interpretation, not an impersonation, and that’s how it should be. She looks just enough like Garland and is so thin that you believe the flashbacks explaining how and why she always had problems with her weight. She also has a slight physical stoop which gives away her age – a whole 47. To our eyes, she looks significantly older. But Judy is determined never to grown old. We hardly ever see her out of makeup.
The years of excess have taken their toll, so that initially Zellweger’s singing is questionable. It doesn’t sound that much like Garland’s famous voice – but, in reality, it wouldn’t have. So it’s right, especially when the sparkle and charisma that characterised Garland’s performances is still very much there. Of course, it takes more than one person to make a film, but this is Zellweger’s show. The sad thing is that the film as a whole doesn’t really live up to her. There’s a sense of it being a touch by the numbers, at times slipping into sentiment, especially in its portrayal of Judy’s meeting with a gay couple and a scene during one of her concerts. There’s some good supporting turns, however, the most notable being Jessie Buckley as her long suffering English PA, Rosalyn: miles away from her Wild Rose persona and showing just what a significant acting talent she is, regardless of the role.
Fans of Garland will no doubt lap up the film with relish, knowing the legend’s backstory and songs. Those less familiar will learn from it, not just the facts of her life but what it was about her that appealed to and touched the hearts of so many. In that sense, Judy is a fitting tribute to an icon – one that will touch your heart too.
Freda Cooper |★★★ 1/2
Biography, Drama | UK, 4 October (2019) | Pathe UK | Dir. Rupert Goold | Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Finn Wittrock.