Review: Judy

This 2019 biographical drama, based on the award-winning West End and Broadway play ‘End of the Rainbow’ by Peter Quilter, is directed by Rupert Goold. It stars Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Royce Pierreson, Richard Cordery, Darci Shaw and Michael Gambon.

In the late 1930s, young actress and singer Judy Garland (Shaw) struggles with the pressure of the MGM studio, overseen by exec Louis B. Mayer (Cordery). Friendships are lost, her identity changed, but her love for performing carries her on. Forward to the late 60s, and an older, fragile Judy (Zellweger) is struggling to keep custody of her two younger children and pay off increasing debt. With no-one willing to take a chance on her, she turns to her pill and alcohol addiction to escape the stress.

When a spot headlining London’s “Talk Of The Town” show is offered to her, Judy reluctantly agrees to perform. With P.A Rosalyn Walker (Buckley) and handsome American friend Mickey Deans (Wittrock) urging her on, Judy must face her demons and discover who she really is in order to be the star she was always meant to be…

Going into this biopic unaware of the life of actor and singer Judy Garland will not hinder your enjoyment and investment in the film. If anything, it will work in your favour and whet your appetite to discover more. Safe to say this doesn’t cover all main areas in Judy’s childhood and adult life, but it touches on key moments that carved out a life ultimately over-shadowed by personal struggles, addictions and pure love.

First and foremost, Renée Zellweger is outstanding as Judy. At 50, three years older than the Judy she portrayed, she does nothing but look, talk, sing – BOY can she sing – and perform. There isn’t a hint of Bridget Jones era Zellweger here. Following her rather dramatic weight loss and change of appearance, it works in spades here playing the fragile looking and diminutive Garland. Her gaunt appearance, matched with that American drawl fused by years of drink, drugs and showbiz, all go together to make Zellweger near unrecognisable, which isn’t a bad thing. You are immediately invested with Judy’s pain and struggle, and you don’t let up until the credits. Awards season should, if there is justice in the world, look highly on this performance. From her 2001 ‘Chicago’ days, Zellweger also lends her powerful pipes to a number of classic songs performed in and around the 1968 “Talk Of The Town” show. This isn’t a drama populated with song and dance, no. The songs come up as and when they’re performed “live”, and you can smell the smoke and perfume and liquor each time she belts out a number, be it the toe-tapping “The Trolley Song”, the inspiring “By Myself” or the heart-wrenching“Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.

The cast around here are rather there to (literally) support here, and we don’t get much chance to really delve into their own views, thoughts and wants. Finn Wittrock and Rufus Sewell play two of Garland’s five husbands, while Michael Gambon and Jessie Buckley are her London-based aides and representatives. Each has their own private battle with Judy, but each play a part in her road to partial recovery, however small their time may be with her. Kudos also to young Darci Shaw, who plays “Oz” era Garland, and to Richard Cordery as slimy exec Louis B. Mayer. Through Shaw and Cordery, the few flashbacks paint a rather uncomfortable picture of the abuse Garland suffered as a childstar and the strict life she was made to lead, and many other hinted nightmares to face on the path to fame.

Set in both sunny LA and an often dark, rainy London, “Judy” uses flashback as mentioned to connect dots to behaviour linked from the past traumas. While this biopic, as many others, never tries to re-invent the genre, Goold does step away from the usual rise, fall and rise again such as “Walk The Line” or more recent efforts in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman”. This isn’t a story fuelled by the music, it’s fuelled by the real woman BEHIND the music. It doesn’t offer false hope to give any happy ending. Running at just over 1hr 40mins, “Judy” doesn’t bloat or rush a story. It focuses on a key moment to paint a woman in her most boldest colour without trying to cover too many years or plot points that end up fading the edges.

If you don’t know her story, you’re in for a very emotional and often harrowing road, showing that not all Hollywood legends get their happy ending, even if they follow their yellow brick road or are driven by their strongest addiction – a love for their children.

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