Judy review: Renée Zellweger is remarkable
James R | On 04, Feb 2020
Director: Rupert Goold
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon
“What if I can’t do it again?” asks Judy Garland, backstage, after she just brought the house down in a London theatre. Except, of course, it’s not Judy Garland we’re watching, it’s Renée Zellweger pretending to be her – and Judy finds tremendous power in that study of the very act of performing.
It’s impossible, of course, for Renée Zellweger to transform entirely into Judy Garland all the time, just as it’s also impossible for Judy Garland to play Judy Garland all the time – but by golly, they both make you believe they can.
Rather than take a conventional biopic approach, Judy takes its lead from Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow and focuses on the star in her twilight years – she passed away at the tender age of 47 – at a point when she is well over the rainbow. But Judy’s tragedy is that, no matter how much she thinks of her stage and screen work as a part-time hustle in between being a family woman, she can never stop putting on the persona of the iconic movie star. It’s no coincidence that the most time we see her spend with her kids on-screen is when they’re performing together on-stage.
Strapped for cash, she takes a residency gig in London in 1969, and, while it takes her away from her children, it gives her a taste of the spotlight once again. Throughout, Tom Edge’s script flashes back to Garland as a child, and it’s easy to see the toxic roots of her addictive personality, with MGM boss Louis B Mayer creepily manipulating her into thinking she was a worthless nobody and forcing her to take pills instead of dinners to keep her unnaturally slim.
Zellweger sinks her teeth into the character, playing it like All About Eve in which she gets both roles, effortlessly seguing between Judy the star and Judy the woman sabotaging her own life. She’s pursed, haggard and bitter one second, then heartbreakingly childlike the next, her eyes and chin always darting upwads looking for the next opportunity to pose for a non-existent camera. It’s a barnstorming performance that manages to balance vicious with vulnerable sadness.
She’s supported by a superb ensemble, most notably Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley, who goes toe to toe with Zellweger as Judy’s no-nonsense tour organiser, Rufus Sewell as her ex-husband Sidney, Finn Witrock as Mickey, her dubious new love interest, as well as two fans who cross paths with her and gaze adoringly while hilariously failing to make an omelette.
But this is Zellweger’s show and Goold’s camera knows it, swooping back and forth across the stage and crowd to capture the point where Renée ends and Judy begins. It’s an illusion that never fails to enchant, backed up by heartfelt performances of Garland’s best musical numbers, and leaves you wondering, each time she struts back on stage, whether she really can pull it off again. “You won’t forget me, will you?” asks Judy, at once magnificent and desperate, after closing out a banger. There’s little chance of that.