Fourteen years after her last directorial outing (Faithless) Ingmar Bergman alumnus Liv Ullmann returns with this adaptation of August Strindberg’s play. The performances are excellent but the same can’t be said for the heavy-handed plodding direction.
Set on a country estate in 1890’s Ireland – and really just the kitchens and bedrooms of the house - over the course of a Midsummer’s night, a class war commences. Footman John (Farrell) bristles with ambition and has a liking for the finer things; he calls for wine from the ‘fancy glass’ and asks why his dinner plate hasn’t been warmed up. John’s fiancée and cook Kathleen (Morton) is more down to earth, has accepted her role in the world: she gives the dog the same as John’s favourite dish.
John can barely mask his contempt for the house Lady, the bored Miss Julie (Chastain), who enjoys humiliating and flirting with John, even in front of Kathleen. With the house deserted – the Baron, Julie’s father, is away and the rest of the staff are enjoying a night off – this dynamic of attraction, repulsion and social hierarchy will clash and have tragic consequences for all concerned.
But damn it if it doesn’t take an age to get there. Despite the constant rise and fall of dramatic tension, giving the story real momentum, the 129 minutes here are felt. Visually it’s a bit dull: aside from the odd excursion into the garden and the stables, Ullman isn’t really concerned with breaking up the stagey setting. She lets the camera roll and for Farrell, Chastain and Morton to do their thing.
And do they do their thing. The story marginalises Morton, who spends most of the running time in her room alone, but Farrell (proving again that those who don’t rate him are talking nonsense) and Chastain (better here than she was in her Oscar-nominated role for Zero Dark Thirty) keep the fires burning and get their tongues around the meaty dialogue. But eventually their lines become white noise - heavy on the metaphor, the coded dialogue becomes difficult - leaving the viewer to figure to keep in tune by studying the expressions on their faces.
If only they were allowed some consistency. Miss Julie would do well to pick an emotion and stick with it for thirty seconds but because the feelings come thick and fast with the mood perpetually changing – it can move from lust to disgust to sadness to hope and back again before anything gets a chance to register – leaving one uncaring about how the story will unfold.