Julia - DVD Review

'a fairly successful and delicate look at middle and upper-class guilt, considering what the indulged fascism of the thirties grew in to'

With just over 5,000 votes on IMDb, some thirty-seven years after release, Julia feels like something of a forgotten film. When you consider that it stars people such as Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, with meaty support from Jason Robards and a cameo from Meryl Streep, this seems like rather an odd turn of events. When you further factor in that it received eleven nominations at the 1978 Academy Awards, things get even stranger. How different things could have been for Fred Zinnemann's film that year, and perhaps since, had it not been up against two small productions that gouged most of the attention; little known movies Star Wars and Annie Hall.

Zinneman's quiet film did leave The Academy that night clutching three Oscars, which initially makes its anonymity even more surprising. If you pick up this new UK DVD release though, spotting where its audience problem lies is relatively easy. Though well made and with a smattering of good performances, this is as subdued and detached as film-making gets, an odd elegiac film, at least partly about passion and yet curiously lacking in that very element itself.

It is the 1930s. Stewing at an unspecified coastal retreat, wannabe writer Lillian (Fonda) struggles to escape the shadow of her established partner Hammett (Robards). To kindle her creative nous, Hammett suggests Lillian take a break to Europe visiting old friend Julia (Redgrave), whom she finds in the throws of a violent campaign against spreading fascism.

Based on the memoir of playwright Lillian Hellman, Julia can on one level be seen as a fairly successful and delicate look at middle and upper-class guilt, considering what the indulged fascism of the thirties grew in to. Travelling in Europe later into the film, Lillian is accompanied by Alan (Hal Holbrook) and Dottie (Rosemary Murphy), two upper-class companions who don't listen and whose concerns are society soirées. Streep's cameo involves a scene where Lillian, her concerns bubbling, is again ignored in favour of swished furs and gross chit-chat. For the most part, this is Julia's biggest success, Zinneman successfully depicting several classes of society caught in their bubble, whilst violence and espionage seep towards those around them.

The problem is that into that the director manages to inject very, very little. A latter section on a train has all of the hallmarks of a classic piece of spy tension, but is instead largely fumbled, directed in a too-fussy style which kills the interest. A similar thing happens during Julia and Lillian's reunion in a German cafe. Away from the potential 'Action', the relationships too seem underdeveloped, captured with an uninterested eye. Sundry time is spent setting up Julia and Lillian's friendship, but later little is made of it: there's hardly any feeling of love there between the two. There's less still in the Lillian/Hammett axis. Initially, I wasn't even certain they were partners. Even Julia herself, clearly at least the focus of Hellman's narrative, is curiously under-characterised: we see none of her apparent activism, none of the heroics Hellman's memoir apparently wanted to remember and celebrate.

It makes for a very chilly film about a very chilly period, directed with, yes, something of a chilly eye. Though Zinneman can offer some insight Julia lacks truly memorable elements: passion, love, even character; things to remember a film by.

Julia is released on new UK DVD on Monday 15th September.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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