The Movie Waffler DVD Review - <i>Julia</i> (1977) | The Movie Waffler

DVD Review - Julia (1977)

Reissue of Fred Zinneman's World War II drama from Odyssey DVD.

Directed by: Fred Zinneman
Starring: Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook, Rosemary Murphy, Meryl Streep

With a roster of excellence behind and in front of the camera, and a plethora of award nominations, one struggles to place what exactly is wrong with Julia. Let’s call it a surfeit of good taste. Told in an annoyingly elliptical fashion, with an epistolary narration, it never quite gets to the heart of the matter. Is it a film about a cloyingly close platonic relationship (though one laughable scene puts any readings of this pairing as sapphic firmly in its place)? Or perhaps a tale of writer Lillian Hellman (Fonda) honing her craft and her mentorship both in life and career with Dashiell Hammett (Robards, the best thing in the film by a country mile)? That it only really finds a voice as an unexceptional wartime spy thriller is possibly the greatest sin, considering the fecundity the material has to offer.
Julia (Redgrave) is the aristocratic childhood friend of Lillian, a relationship so close and important to her intellectual and emotional development that it informs and influences her life and career. One does not doubt the integrity of the sentiment, but this is a show not tell medium and apart from a few conversations about poetry and guidance on fork etiquette there is little imparted to make us believe in the power of this love. Redgrave may be the titular character but she is given little to do. More a cypher and a galvanising presence, it is difficult to see how she won an Oscar for it. Personally, Redgrave has always been a difficult actor to like; a touch too self regarding, as if this film lark is beneath her, at once distant and amused by her own genius, like a cat who has got all the cream.
Robards gives a grounded and beautifully restrained performance; gruff, wise but never sentimental. Fonda acts as though she is Katherine Hepburn playing Lillian, but they make a great pairing. The fact that her late blooming relationship with Hammett has more weight and gravitas is a problem when the film is called Julia.
Zinnemann shoots the picture in a gauzy twilight hour style that is almost chocolate box perfect, but struggles to bring to cinematic life that most inert of professions. Here he gets round it by having her festooned with accolades and praise from an underwritten group of lackeys to remind us of her genius (Meryl Streep making her debut being one of them). It appears that a diet of smokes, barbecued fish and whisky is all that it takes to induce reveries that will soon be turned into critically acclaimed fiction.
Proceedings liven up considerably when the increasingly radicalised Julia asks Lillian to smuggle some money to Germany to help fund the resistance. The incipient rise of Nazism is a running theme throughout, but is handled so politely that it looks like little more than the rise to power of a gang of particularly officious acting bureaucrats.
Much has been written about Lillian Hellman’s relaxed attitude to the truth, in reality a strident self aggrandiser, who has received just as much opprobrium as approbation. That the final act is more cinematic than has gone before may be down to a more active imagination than a strict adherence to the facts. Would Lillian, as a Jewish woman, so readily enter the lion's den, and more to the point, if Julia is such a bloody good friend, why has she so readily put her in danger?
Despite the lofty intentions, it still tries to pull a bit of last act hanky ringing melodrama that sits awkwardly with what has gone before. This is cinema as bran flakes. It may be at pains to tell you how good it is for you, but why does it have to be so bland and insipid and take so much damn effort to swallow?
(No extras)