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| 10 October 2019 | Reply

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Tom Edge, based on the play End Of The Rainbow by Peter Quilter
Starring Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, Michael Gambon
Reviewed by Shane Pinnegar

Six months before her tragic death aged only 47, faded child star Judy Garland is almost unhirable in the U.S. due to a reputation for being difficult, “unreliable and uninsurable,” and ekes out a meagre living performing cut-price appearances with her children. Finding herself homeless and in crushing debt to the IRS, she has no option but to leave the children with their father Sid (Rufus Sewell) and embark on a lucrative tour to play a season of shows in London.

During the season she delivers some stunning performances, as well as several alarming meltdowns fuelled by her alcoholism and drug use mired with difficult personal issues. Flashbacks to the filming of her masterpiece – the film whose shadow she would never truly step out from under – The Wizard Of Oz, show us the appalling child abuse she was subjected to by the movie studio and its head, Louis B Meyer, played with predatory ruthless greed by Richard Cordery.

Zellweger is fantastic as the damaged, fading icon, and hotly tipped to be staring down the Academy Award for Best Actress. In addition to dramatic weight loss, prosthetic teeth and Garland’s pixie haircut, she has all the mannerisms down to an impersonator’s degree, and even sings Garland’s iconic tunes – very well, in fact.

More importantly, she captures the tragedy of Garland’s damaged life. As a child she was brutally insulted and manipulated, fed amphetamines to work eighteen hours straight and barbituates to sleep, denied food and insulted to her face, called ugly, overweight, and there is also an implied hint of sexual abuse, though that is left very thinly alluded to here. That she developed drug and alcohol dependencies, an eating disorder, and constant relationship problems is no surprise in the face of such child abuse.

Zellweger finds the truth at the core of Judy Garland’s talent. She sang from the heart, putting her soul and power and bravery and magic into her extraordinary vocal performances, but she was unable to filter her emotions. When her life was in tumult – fighting bitter custody battles for her children, wracked by stagefright, raddled by her addictions, facing enormous debt and a tarnished career along with a history of self-sabotage and poor relationship choices… that too manifested in her performances. As she herself acknowledges in Judy, she was ‘impossible’, but on a good night, she knew the heights she could reach. If only she could have made every night that good.

One of the film’s most touching scenes shows Garland enjoying a late meal at the home of an adoring gay couple after a show. The actress, finding herself in safe company – allies, as she calls them – she finally drops her guard and stops performing, allowing herself to be herself for a short time. The relief is obvious on Zellweger’s face, and the movie reminds us of the agonising pressure of presenting a mask to practically everyone around us by showing Garland enjoying her first decent sleep in a long time afterwards.

Zellweger manages to show these fractured levels of Garland’s persona, and it’s what makes her performance extremely special, and far beyond mere impersonation. That she does practically all of the heavy lifting here – Michael Gambon in particular, as impresario Bernard Delfont is literally given next to nothing to do – makes this a special performance indeed, though Darci Shaw is also superb as the teenage Judy. This is undeniably Zellweger’s moment, and if she does walk away with the Best Actress gong it will not be undeserved.

Category: Movie & Theatre Reviews

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