Prepare for laughter, heartbreak and a phenomenal evocation of Judy Garland by Renée Zellweger.
Set primarily in 1969, the final year of Judy Garland’s life, Rupert Goold’s Judy is an adaptation of the Broadway play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter. Interspersed with flashbacks to her youth, we follow Garland (Renée Zellweger) on a five-week concert slot at London’s Talk of the Town in a turbulent endeavour to regain a shred of her showbiz reputation. This disjointed narrative often becomes confused, particularly as the film draws to a close.
A constant here is the sense of sadness surrounding Garland’s story and her life as a whole. Poignant moments depict the limitations placed on the Hollywood star’s childhood, juxtaposed effectively by her interactions with her own children. An early scene sees Garland taking some unknown pills as daughter Lorna (Bella Ramsey) begs “please don’t go to sleep now”, Judy trying to reassure her by replying “these are the other ones”. Heavily drugged as a child star, Garland’s upbringing impacted her throughout her life. Not only did it trouble her relationships with loved ones, such as her children, but led to appetite issues, insomnia and frequent anxiety. Screenwriter Tom Edge does a good job of treating Garland with respect, even as she suffers multiple indignities.
Zellweger’s big Hollywood comeback is welcomed, and it is big: with fabulous costumes, grand set design and a range of emotional topics, Judy puts the actress back in Oscars contention. Iconic costuming moments come right out of the gate, Garland in the opening scene sporting a beautifully designed suit as she signs autographs alongside her children for small financial return. During her time in London, Garland continues to show off her memorable outfits, such as a shiny floral number and black sequined dress. Some of these outfits worn by Zellweger are replicas of Garland’s actual attire, such as the wedding dress she wore marrying Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Zellweger was made to look more like Garland through the use of dramatic make-up, contact lenses, wigs, and even a prosthetic nose – all this rounds off, rather than distracts from, the believability of her performance.
Although Judy isn’t exactly innovative in technique, there are some interesting frames. Edits between Garland’s quick-witted and fun-loving stage persona, contrasted with the bleak reality of her internal pain as soon as she enters the changing room, produce plenty of empathy for Judy. Zellweger has explained how Garland was not allowed to be human, how “there was no room on her schedule for her to think and be sane,” and Goold is able to capture that feeling precisely.
It doesn’t tiptoe around the variety of traumas that Garland endured in her early life, but neither does it languish and exploit her awful treatment in the Hollywood studio machine. She is groped and force-fed drugs by MGM bosses; Garland’s abuse reverberated throughout her later years, and it reverberates through Judy too.
Another key scene shows Garland having dinner at the house of a gay couple, eventually resulting in an emotional piano duet where one of the men ends up crying and being comforted by Judy. Though this encounter was created for the film, it was inspired by and designed to display the role Garland would take on as an icon amongst the LGBT community.
Despite a slightly muddled structure, Judy makes for a largely wonderful addition to the recent trend of legendary stars being portrayed in musical biopics. It is sensitive and informative, hosting a range of Garland’s best songs – ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ a particular favourite – all confirming Zellweger’s impressive vocal cords. An honest and interesting watch, Judy convincingly brings Judy Garland back to life through Zellweger’s outstanding performance.
Judy (2019), directed by Rupert Goold, is distributed in the UK by Pathe, certificate 12A.