Published Sep 26, 2019It sometimes feels like there are two Judy Garlands that remain in the pop culture canon: the rose-cheeked child star clad in her blue-checkered dress and ruby red slippers, and the tragic, gaunt figure who died of a barbiturates overdose at age 47. It's a hard gap to bridge, but one that Judy tackles with delicate, heartfelt duty.
Anchored by a stunning, Oscar-worthy performance by Renée Zellweger, Judy is a touching, heartbreaking tribute to one of early Hollywood's most enduring icons, and a painful reminder of the industry's long history of abuse.
The bulk of the film takes place in London, six months before her death, as Garland deals with debt, homelessness and a custody battle over her two youngest children. She reluctantly agrees to a five-week residency in London, where she struggles to stay sober and coherent enough to perform. Zellweger's Garland is all witty one-liners and infectious smirk, a consummate performer on and (especially) off the stage. Though Zellweger's lip-synching in an early musical number is a bit spotty, her renditions of Garland's biggest tunes demonstrate great skill, serving to emulate Garland's iconic voice without veering into pure impersonation.
The film is interlaced with scenes from Garland's formative years on the sets of MGM, as she deals with abusive on-set guardians who rob her of her youth, forbidding her from eating, socializing and sleeping. Newcomer Darci Shaw nails her role as young Judy — you can practically see the innocence draining out of her angelic face after every scold. It's a particularly effective framing device in communicating the struggles of adult Judy, especially in regard to her obsessive battle over her children's custody, and her desire to give them better childhoods than the one that still haunts her.
Beneath the sheer talent and visual style, director Rupert Goold digs into his lengthy career in theatre to aim for and from the heart. The film wastes no time portraying Zellweger's Garland as deeply, fatally flawed, and though it digs into her past to offer context, it never once delves into pity — Zellweger's confident, assured performance makes sure of that. It's a fascinating character study, and one that resonates with today's ongoing conversations on abuse in the world of big budget arts and entertainment.
Zellweger delivers one of the best performances in her career and only heightens things before a stunning, heartrending finale. With a glamorous but not overwrought visual style, a strong script that plays to the strengths of its star and a nuanced appreciation for the tumultuous life of its subject, Judy is a resonant, compact exploration into the perils of fame and fortune.