Renée Zellweger is captivating as a troubled Judy Garland in her final months.
Starring Renée Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell and Michael Gambon
As huge as the talent that was Judy Garland is the tragedy that befell her. The emphasis of the latest in a long line of biopics that Hollywood seems to be churning out is upon the termoil and the strife that Garland endured off-stage in the latter parts of her career. Amidst flashbacks to Garland’s early years working with MGM, in which she was starved and plied with drugs, we are treated glimpsed of an anxious and insecure Garland when she is not presented on stage.
While entirely captivating in her performance, the film is somewhat dragged down by the time period it is presented within. There seems to be a certain sense of inevitability for Garland’s fate which, while obvious, makes any sort of meaningful moment for Garland (and, moreover, Zellweger) ultimately emotionally useless. Adapted from Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, Judy follows Garland’s five-week London run of shows, while she was struggling both with alcoholism and drug addiction. Forced away from her children due to having a reputation for being difficult to work with, her London shows are somewhat of a last chance for Garland to earn enough money to live happily with her family. It becomes such a theme and repeating pattern throughout the film that it almost loses its effect. The flashbacks to Garland’s early days are appreciated, but somewhat heavy handed, reducing Garland’s story to one that appears almost deterministic because of this trajectory that she was set upon at the beginning. I’m undecided as to whether this exacerbates or alleviates the tragedy here, but it’s certainly an overly simplistic take on her addiction in the limelight.
The best parts of the film are the moments that elicit discomfort and pathos within the audience. When a quivering Garland is unceremoniously thrust on stage by her handler Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley, here only using a morsel of her wide range of talent), this is especially powerful, especially when she bursts into full Garland mode, only to slip back into a nervous slump following the show. It’s a story beat that never seems especially to be topped, but her distress at deciding to leave her children in LA with her ex-husband is especially moving, considering Garland’s story up until that point in the movie.
I can’t help but feel that Judy Garland is infinitely more complex than the film suggests, and that a different narrative context would have served this better. While researching for this review, I found a practical laundry list of inspirational and mesmering quotes from Garland herself, which I find speak to me and resonate with me much more than the film itself did, which is not a commentary upon the incredible talent of Zellweger, but more the narrative structure that was chosen originally.
Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.
I’ve always taken ‘The Wizard of Oz’ very seriously, you know. I believe in the idea of the rainbow. And I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over it.
We cast away priceless time in dreams, born of imagination, fed upon illusion, and put to death by reality.
In the silence of night I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people.
I can live without money, but I cannot live without love.
If I am a legend, then why am I so lonely?
I was born at the age of twelve on an MGM lot.
How strange when an illusion dies. It’s as though you’ve lost a child.
All of these speak to me in a way that would be so intriguing to have explored on film, and could even have been emphasised more within the script that was provided.
However, perhaps I am being overly critical. I did really enjoy the film. Zellweger perfectly portrays Garland at the end of her career, capturing the mannerisms with seeming ease and giving us a real emotional depth to this beloved star. Alongside her are Finn Witrock as her slimy and cunning final husband Mickey Deans and Rufus Sewell as her ex-husband Sidney Luft. A particularly touching subplot involves faithful gay fans Stan and Dan (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) who are accompanied by Judy for dinner when she feels lonely.
Ultimately, Judy is a strong insight into the Hollywood legend, but leans too heavily upon painting her as a tragic martyr to the industry instead of a fully realised three-dimensional figure. Furthermore, the upbeat ending is entirely at odds with the real tragic ending. A biopic that traversed the entire life of Garland might have had more emotional punch and accuracy in portraying the reality of Garland’s addiction, instead of reducing it to isolated events told within flashback sequences.