some reason, theater companies are constantly enticed by the dramatic
possibilities of August Strindberg’s Miss
Julie, but often feel the need to re-conceptualize and modernize the play
for contemporary audiences. For instance, there have been the Mississippi
Freedom Summer production, several Apartheid South Africa re-settings, and Neil
LaBute’s Gatsby-esque take. For her new cinematic adaptation, Liv Ullmann is
relatively faithful to her source material, simply moving it to an Irish estate
while maintaining the 1890s timeframe. The mistress of the manor will indeed
spend an overheated Midsummer’s Eve with two of her father’s servants in
Ullmann’s respectfully traditional Miss
opens this Friday in New York.
Julie was expected to celebrate midsummer with her young and beautiful friends
of equal social standing. Instead, she crashed the servant’s barn dance. She
already carried a whiff of scandal, but her reckless pursuit of her father’s
valet John (formerly Jean) could cause social Armageddon, at least for her.
John has long carried both a romantic torch and lingering class-based
resentments for Miss Julie. Given his engagement to Kathleen, the kitchen maid,
John initially attempts to deflect her advancements. However, he will soon
become a destabilizing devil whispering in her ear.
play is so deeply steeped in rigid class demarcations, American audiences
really need an added racial component to relate to the underlying drama. This
is the land that invented social mobility, so when Kathleen admonishes John “class
is class” the full significance is largely lost on us. It is as much a plea to
remain faithful to his own class as it is a warning not risk reprisals for
getting ideas above his station.
plays represent such a minefield of heavy-handed symbolism as Miss Julie, yet Ullmann opts to
highlight nearly every example, from the dog Miss Julie feeds an abortifacient after
her frisky behavior with a mongrel to her ill-fated caged bird. Likewise, she presents
the realities of late Nineteenth Century social mores in as harsh a light as
possible. Frankly, Strindberg has been unjustly labeled a misogynist based on shallow
readings of Miss Julie’s most
problematic passages, but as an extreme naturalist, he was represented life as
it was, not as he thought it should be. Ullmann’s adaptation will do little to
rehabilitate him with those inclined to misinterpret.
as an intimate three-hander (for all intents and purposes), any production of Miss Julie offers an opportunity for its
principles to shine. Unfortunately, even though we can see Jessica Chastain and
Colin Farrell trying their hardest, they just cannot find the keys to unlock
their characters. Nonetheless, Chastain understands a glacial reserve is often required
for Miss Julie, while Farrell can deliver the appropriate malevolent intensity
to maintain the dramatic dynamics. They are both excellent performers (Farrell
is especially undervalued), but they simply can’t quite land these roles.
Conversely, Samantha Morton truly taps into the essence of Kathleen, powerfully
conveying the comfort she takes from her (formerly Calvinist) faith and the hardscrabble
certainties of her class.
It is always nice to see someone take another
shot at a literary classic and given her accomplished work with Ingmar Bergman and
Jan Troell, as well as her celebrated Broadway turns, we ought to be interested
in any project Ullmann takes on. Yet, it is hard to get a sense of what exactly
it was about the play that originally spoke to her. Nonetheless, she makes the
kitchen of Castle Coole in County Fermanagh fill the screen quite
cinematically. The soundtrack, featuring fresh recordings of Schubert and
Schumann, is also quite lovely, but it is cranked up a bit too high in the
sound-mix. Altogether, it is a classy production, but it rarely gets past the
outward forms and down to the inner truths. Recommended primarily for
Swedish-Norwegian-Irish expats and fans of the big name cast, Miss Julie opens this Friday (12/5) in
New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.
Labels: August Strindberg, Colin Farrell, Jessica Chastain, Liv Ullmann