Judy (Rupert Goold, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Judy Garland (born Frances Gumm in 1922) led a not-so-long and very troubled life, during which time she wowed audiences with her incomparable singing, dancing and presence before becoming, in the years before her 1969 death, from an overdose of barbiturates, a shadow of her once great self. In the new biopic Judy, from director Rupert Goold (True Story), actress Renée Zellweger (The Whole Truth) incarnates Garland in the last year of her life as she travels to London, where her Hollywood aura still counts (back home she can’t get work), delivering a bravura performance matched only by what the woman she plays could do in her prime. It’s an example of flawless casting, Zellweger so perfectly embodying the part that one sees no trace of any prior characters she has played. There’s only Judy, filling the screen as she always could.
Unfortunately, the script, by Tom Edge (The Last Dragonslayer), based on Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, is not always up to her level, though it mostly provides an adequate and entertaining dramatic structure. One of its stronger aspects is a firm grounding in Garland’s abuse, early on, at the hands of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who kept her on a tight leash with little freedom to eat what, or sleep when, she wanted, using one kind of pill for daytime energy and another kind for nighttime rest. Young Judy (played here by Darci Shaw, also terrific) never had a chance, and we watch with heartbroken empathy as her childhood is destroyed. There are just enough horrific flashbacks, starting with the production of The Wizard of Oz, to inform the miserable present.
As maudlin as the story becomes, there is still plenty of humor to lighten the mood; whatever its other issues, the screenplay gets the mix of tones just right. Still, any narrative about a self-destructive person on the brink of disaster, whose position in life is already low, is difficult to watch. There are moments when Judy becomes the Norman Maine opposite whom she appeared so vibrant in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born: will she rise to the occasion and shine, despite her drunkenness, or collapse on stage? She may surprise you, given the scene, even if the end is foreordained. Despite the fine handling of atmosphere, however, the movie can’t help but seem overly contrived, at times, whether it’s in an extended sequence with a gay couple with whom Garland spends time which, as delightful as it is, feels like a forced tribute to Garland’s status as gay icon, or in the last scene where the actress sings a faltering version of “Over the Rainbow,” supported by the audience (still, I cried, so it wasn’t a complete failure).
Contrivances aside, the cast, even beyond Zellweger, is superb, with the likes of Michael Gambon (The Last Witness), Rufus Sewell (Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle series), Royce Pierreson (Love Me Till Monday), Finn Wittrock (Write When You Get Work) and, especially, Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose) offering ample support to the diva. But Judy nevertheless belongs, indelibly, to its lead actress, who brings genuine pathos and sharp wit to her tragic role whenever she graces the frame. It’s her world, and how lucky we are to visit.