What a shame that Jessica Chastain’s fiery turn in “Miss Julie” went unnoticed by Academy voters. Director Liv Ullmann’s complex take on August Strindberg’s early feminist play may be too stagey for some, but this is Best Actress material for Chastain, who injects vitality into a repressed 19th-century woman who falls from grace.
Chastain’s electrifying performance places among the great female dramatic turns in a literary tragedy, from Nina Pens Rode in “Gertrud” to Nastassja Kinski in “Tess” and Isabelle Huppert in “Madame Bovary.” So why was no one talking about it?
“Miss Julie” premiered at TIFF 2014 to unenthusiastic response and remained at-large on the distribution market before eventually landing at Wrekin Hill (the film hits home video 5/5). Perhaps too loyal to the original 1888 Swedish stage tragedy, Ullmann’s version confines the three-character drama to a secluded estate over the course of one Midsummer’s Eve, a dusk-til-dawn period of Dionysian decadence and blurred class lines.
Chastain relishes the more unhinged and rapacious facets of this meaty role, sinking under the skin of a Count’s daughter whose housebound boredom and twisty desires spark an explosion of emotions between her and the story’s two other characters: Jean, a worldly valet (Colin Farrell) whose cultural capital belies his lowly class position, and the devout servant (Samantha Morton) to whom he is woefully engaged. All three actors are astounding, by the way.
Ullmann’s cold-blooded direction doesn’t stop the ravishing, redheaded beauty from devouring one poetic monologue after another, while telegraphing Julie’s often wildly contradictory feelings through gesture and movement. When she’s not bursting into servants’ quarters with entitled hauteur, or flying off the walls in the horrifically beautiful climax, Julie walks with a sort of impeded gait, limping with the psychic burden of class paralysis. She longs for abasement in Jean’s arms, but hesitates to throw away the creature comforts of her pampered life.
The relationships get more complicated after a shattering consummation scene. Who’s more the abject lover: the servant who deigns to approach the lady of the house, or the haughty lady who seduces him?
It’s hardly a coincidence that Chastain’s director was married to the master of women-led psychodramas. Ingmar Bergman was well-attuned to brave actresses, none more than Ullmann herself. At the AFI premiere of “A Most Violent Year,” Chastain told me that she has more than once chased the attentions of another European auteur with a predilection for the female psyche, Michael Haneke. I hope he watched his screener of “Miss Julie.”
Ryan Lattanzio is the staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.