In 1969, famous singer and actress Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) arrives in London for a series of sell-out concerts while struggling to come to terms with depression, alcoholism and substance abuse. Judy examines what really happened during that infamous five-week run.
Judy Garland is not someone that I’m hugely familiar with, being a millennial and all. But I do know she was a star, and a star with a capital ‘S’ at that. However, this is not a biopic that fondly touches upon the ‘yellow brick road’ rise of Judy, but rather the End of the Rainbow, Peter Quilter’s acclaimed stage play about the final days of Garland’s life.
The Garland we meet in Judy (played by Renée Zellweger) is a Hollywood has-been, and one who’s been quite literally singing for her supper, room and board each night. She pockets a paltry few hundred dollars in profit each time she performs, which is nothing like the kind of figure she used to command in her heyday. She accepts it, though, in order to provide for her two youngest children. This doesn’t stop husband number four, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), from claiming custody: Garland’s nomadic lifestyle of jumping from hotel to hotel has hardly given their kids an idyllic childhood.
With little choice but to accept a five-week stint at London’s Talk of the Town club to inject some much-needed cash into her coffers, Garland leaves the USA in pursuit of a better future – albeit one which is undeniably tied to her past. Because, as she navigates her run of sell-out concerts, she is struggling to come to terms with her depression, alcoholism and substance abuse.
Through the film’s flashbacks, we learn how Garland began her career as a child star – and how she was manipulated by those who were supposed to protect her, but instead plied her with pills. “There are girls prettier than you,” they tell her repeatedly, handing her one pill to take the hunger pangs away, one to help her sleep and another to take the edge off.
All these years of abusing pills has left Garland feeling fragile. And it is this fragility which Zellweger – in a role which many are referring to as her ‘comeback’ – executes superbly.
Perhaps best known for her role as enormous knicker-wearing heroine Bridget Jones, the chameleon that is Zellweger couldn’t be further from Miss Jones in Judy – and not just because she dons Garland’s wig, false eyelashes and very distinctive eyeliner below the water line (which proves very effective in capturing the deer-caught-in-headlights look that Garland has throughout the film). In this movie, Zellweger gives us a woman wracked by nerves, one who has to be all but pushed onto the stage by minder Rosalyn Wilder (played by rising star Jessie Buckley).
When she steps on stage, Garland shines like the star she once was. But the camera’s close-ups – and Zellweger’s jerky, uneasy movements – make it clear that the nerves are very much still there under the surface. She’s practically gasping for air by the time she’s finished, and your heart will go out to this poor woman who has been treated like a commodity her whole life.
Rather than sneering at Garland, however, Zellweger shows empathy in her performance and reminds us that Garland was an incredibly lonely woman – one who has been let down time and time again. All she wants is to be taken care of, just once.
However, the picture is carried in its entirety by Judy’s frail shoulders, and unfortunately this renders Judy a good film, but not a great one. Yes, it is an incredibly touching, transformative performance by Zellweger. She gives us a Garland who is vulnerable, fragile, coming apart, but simultaneously humorous, a mother who loved her children and without a doubt, extremely talented. But it’s not enough. Not for me – largely in part due to its uninteresting supporting cast members (bar Garland’s loyal fandom, who provide some much-needed light relief).
As biopics go, I personally don’t see this cracking the top 10 biopics of all time. You want to leave the cinema raving about a biopic, desperate to learn more about the person at its centre. And you want to leave telling your friends that they have to watch this film.
Instead, though, I have found myself struggling to say anything other than, “Watch Judy for the performance Zellweger gives”. Please do, though, because that performance deserves an audience. And, quite possibly, an Oscar, too.
Mayran Yusuf is a film critic who loves nothing better than a good scroll of @TheShaderoom on Instagram and a sucker for any drama that BBC flings out. Series link at the ready!
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