‘Judy’ is a Paint-By-Numbers Biopic Somewhat Enlivened by Renée Zellweger’s Truly Garland-Esque Presence

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CREDIT: David Hindley/Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions

Starring: Renée Zellweger, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Richard Cordery, Darci Shaw

Director: Rupert Goold

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13, Mainly for the Substance Abuse

Release Date: September 27, 2019 (Limited)

Of all the tragedies that Judy Garland endured in her life, perhaps the most visceral one that we get to witness in the biopic Judy is when she is strictly forbidden from eating a burger at a diner while she’s a teenager under the iron fist of MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer. It’s far from the most abusive trauma she ever experienced, and burgers certainly aren’t the most healthy indulgence. But that little bit of rebellion that is chomping on junk food is just the point. This moment is a microcosm representing just how thoroughly Garland’s life was not her own. Judy is driven by that unstable foundation, but it rarely says anything revelatory beyond, “Here’s how this child star was mistreated, and here’s how it still echoes in her life decades later.”

Screenwriter Tom Edge and director Rupert Goold follow the tack of recent showbiz biopics like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and Stan & Ollie by presenting with their subject long after the height of fame when they happen to find themselves in England. It’s 1969. Garland’s most iconic films came out a generation ago, but she’s still mighty beloved. Thus, plenty of people want to see her when her financial reality forces her to temporarily leave her young kids behind in California while she books some live gigs in London. As the adult Judy, Renée Zellweger is a natural fit to convey the constant agony that comes with struggling in the public eye. It’s a fine performance, but one that rarely transcends the standard biopic structure (save for the showstopping number she delivers in the final scene). Judy is a valuable cautionary tale; I just wish it had delivered that note of caution more uniquely.

Judy is Recommended If You Like: You Must Remember This, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Somewheres Over the Rainbow

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Victoria & Abdul’ Reunites Judi Dench with a Classic Role and One of Her Best Directors

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon

Director: Stephen Frears

Running Time: 112 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Uptight Brits Trying (and Sometimes Failing) to Avoid Cursing and Discussing Naughty Bits

Release Date: September 22, 2017 (Limited)

With Victoria & Abdul, Judi Dench returns to the role that earned the dame her first Oscar nomination 20 years ago, and the Academy may very come calling yet again. Of course, such recognition is a distinct possibility for every Dench performance, but that is no reason not to say it again whenever it is called for. As with Mrs. Brown, the narrative focuses on the widowed Queen Victoria’s deeply close relationship with a servant. This time it is Abdul Karim (played with boundless oomph by Bollywood star Ali Fazal), an Indian man whose trip to England was originally meant to be a quick appearance to present the queen with a gift from her subjects but who ultimately became her confidant and spiritual teacher.

Looking over some of the other reviews of Victoria & Abdul, I must admit that I am probably lacking the best experience with which to approach this film. I am not a British citizen, nor do I hail from any country that has ever lived under the kingdom’s imperialist rule. The film might be guilty of whitewashing or revisionist history. I cannot speak sufficiently to its value as a document of record, but I can say that as storytelling, it is dynamic and morally engaging. It might make its heroes and villains more clear-cut than they actually were, but that approach does paint a valuable picture of what it means to be human towards each other.

As he proved with Philomena (the last time he guided Dench to an Oscar nomination), director Stephen Frears knows how to gradually suss out the seriousness from what at first appears to be a happy-go-lucky buddy flick. This could have just been the story of a woman in her twilight years who serendipitously developed a new close friendship that was surprising in many ways. And that would have been perfectly charming. But Victoria and Abdul’s story is much more than that.

Victoria uses the powers of her throne to insist that all subjects be treated justly and properly, thus bucking the push for decorum from the more openly racist members of her court. This is relatively low-risk for someone in her position of power, but that does not make it any less admirable. Much more complicated is Abdul’s behavior. He is encouraged by a fellow Indian servant not to prostrate himself so readily to the oppressor, but he finds a higher spiritual calling in the work of a servant, no matter what the greater context. Those who detect a problematic approach in Abdul’s portrayal are not necessarily wrong, but it is worthwhile to test out the more transcendent approach.

Victoria & Abdul is Recommended If You Like: Philomena, Any and all British royal pictures, Judi Dench at her Dench-iest

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Carpets