A one-night standoff between the aristocrat and servant classes, Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 Miss Julie has endured over the years as one of premodern theater’s gnarliest drawing-room exorcisms. But without an abiding passion for the text, moviegoers might not know what to make of Norwegian icon Liv Ullmann’s new adaptation; a tacit suspension of disbelief comes with the price of admission for a pageant this old-fangled. Described by the director at a festival Q&A as being about “the scream we all have inside of us because of the world today,” Ullmann’s rendition is only haunted by her late collaborator/partner Ingmar Bergman insofar as it points back to the era they shared together—when audiences were likelier to put up with attempts to capture the raw, soul-baring pleasures of theater on screen. Miss Julie is no tearjerker, but it makes the stage play’s guessing-game quality mesmerizing on screen, and without copping to reductivism.
Colin Farrell plays John, valet to a wealthy Irish baron in the late 19th century, engaged to marry the house’s maid, Cathleen (Samantha Morton). On a summer evening, the baron’s daughter, Julie (Jessica Chastain), happens upon on the couple as they’re gossiping about her, and she seeks swift recompense from John, demanding that he dance with her at the town ball, and that he kiss her boot in apology. John complies begrudgingly at first, but the more Julie chips away at him (teasing him for his class-bashfulness, flaunting her powers of sexuality while all the pious Cathleen can do is stare), the more seriously he finds himself taking her flirtations. Soon he’s revealing that he has some repressed feelings for Julie of his own, and the duo spend the night (rendered by Ullmann, intriguingly, in permanent daylight) jousting with John in a quid pro quo of accusations and enticements that invariably reveal to the compromised position in which both players find themselves. “I love the people,” Julie squeals, flustered, of her servants, “and they like me!”
Strindberg himself was born into the servant class, and Miss Julie is—rather than some flowery period romance—a barbed investigation into double-contorted standards of sex and privilege. The play anticipated Freudian notions of catharsis: John and Julie’s mutual cross-examination becomes auto-therapeutic, with every hard-won breakthrough line constructed to clench both its speaker and their viewers in its grip. As played by Farrell, John comes off both a wounded little boy - his furtive eyes glue themselves to the lower half of the frame - and a swaggering rake, resentful to the point of abuse. All the charming things about Farrell—his expressive brows, his bashful smile—are transformed into tics of deception (self- and otherwise). Meanwhile, viewers who sensed an unflappability verging on coldness in Chastain’s earlier performances may find in Julie—whose callousness is motivated by, among other things, a bottomless insecurity—the role she was born to play.
While Morton’s role is the least multifaceted of the trio, she handles it with crushed aplomb, communicating as much in one longing glance as her partners do in belting out Strindberg’s thanklessly dense monologues. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman’s framing doesn’t distract, anchoring itself to the thrust of the performances: Rather than blandly cutting between two speakers during one of the film’s many acidic exchanges, the camera holds on Farrell or Chastain until the words escaping their lips seem to break them down. The film’s nail-biting, parceled-out hysteria becomes a final-act maelstrom and, ultimately, a tragedy: Julie and John do succeed in obliterating one another’s façades, but what if there’s nothing left underneath?