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If subtlety – of storytelling or performance – is your thing, Judy, starring Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the tumultuous final stages of her career and life, will not be for you. Subtle it is not, nor is Zellweger’s performance, which, given its precision and grandiosity, will almost certainly win her the Oscar and many other statues along the way. She will have deserved it. Playing Judy seems like a feat of endurance, which is also the experience of watching the movie.
The first act is enjoyable, as mid-40s Judy, struggling to keep custody of her two children to her third husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell, bringing some admirable restraint), takes a gig in London at a very posh dinner theatre for a five-week engagement, while teenage Judy, in flashback, learns the cold realities of child stardom on the set of The Wizard of Oz. The film neatly sets up a cause and effect scenario around Judy’s lifelong struggles, placing, essentially, a choice of applause and addiction over “normalcy” on her young shoulders. This long section culminates with Judy’s first London performance, which Zellweger does in a one-take wonder that will be all the Academy needs to give her the gold.
From there, though, it’s downhill; repetitive scenes of drunken and drug-addled anguish and dreadful decisions (wait until you see what she does on a winter’s day in a park with a young man) get very tiresome. No one wants to hang out with a delusional self-pitying, very messy drunk for an hour, but the movie makes you, until desperately reaching for your sympathy with one of the most laboured endings in recent memory. The film splits focus by serving up multiple antagonists for Judy and underserving all of them, most egregiously Jesse Buckley’s Rosalyn, the young woman assigned to, essentially, make sure Judy got to the theatre, and onto the stage, every night. Their relationship is the film’s most intriguing but is sadly undercooked.
Ultimately overstaying its welcome by being repetitive and dramatically frustrating, Judy is worth seeing by the right audience for the inherent interest of the historical story (although there’s a lot of made-up nonsense) and Zellweger’s performance, which, however grandiose, is legitimately worthy.