In movies this year, the United Kingdom has come to stand as a kind of river Styx that carries beloved performers to the next life.
In Stan & Ollie, the great comic duo — hard up and at the end of their time together — embarked on a late-career tour of the U.K. that would be their last hurrah before Oliver Hardy’s death.
Now, in Judy, we get a structurally similar scenario — a borderline homeless Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) staging a series of concerts in London circa 1968, just months before a drug overdose claimed her life at age 47.
It’s a grimmer affair that Stan & Ollie, which is a touching movie about two friends overcoming a breach and reconciling in their final months together. In Judy, the booze-and-pills death spiral that would soon claim Garland’s life is immediately front and center, and she has other troubles — she’s been reduced to making $150 a show in Los Angeles, not enough to pay her hotel bill (she’s evicted), and not enough to make a convincing argument that she should retain custody of her youngest children.
In order to raise enough money to mount an effective legal defense, she takes an offer to perform in the U.K., though she is hardly in a condition to do so. In London, she refuses to rehearse and hides in her hotel room, to the alarm of her handler (Jessie Buckley of Wild Rose) and theater manager (Michael Gambon).
For half the movie’s run time, we’re asked to wait for the inevitable but rewarding moment when Garland pulls herself together, and staggers out to meet a crowd that, to her happy astonishment, adores her. The shared energy created by audience and performer that is so restorative to Garland is where the movie finds life.
Still, these early goings are a lot for Zellweger to carry on her own, especially with soapy moments that have her arguing with an ex-husband (Rufus Sewell), and falling for the callow charms of a younger and probably exploitative man (Finn Wittrock).
There are frequent flashbacks to her days as a teenager making movies for MGM (including The Wizard of Oz) for manipulative and sinister studio boss Louis B. Mayer, depicted as an unctuous predator who tells the girl she has heart, then puts his meaty paw on her chest in case she didn’t know where it was.
This isn’t gratuitous #MeToo topicality — this is taken from Garland’s own notes for what was to be a memoir, included in the biography Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke.
The mixing of flashbacks and melodrama add up to an awkward, jumpy, inefficient framing of Garland’s life, but there are also effective moments. In London, Andy Nyman plays a gay man who waits with his partner outside the stage door and is amusingly overcome when Garland (utterly alone in the city) asks herself back to their apartment for a late-night omelet.
Zellweger shines in these scenes, but does even better on stage, using her own capable voice (she sang in Chicago) to give us less an imitation than an approximation of an entertainer trying to connect with an audience more on guts and verve than on her diminished vocal chops.
And yes, the movie has that perfect ace up its sleeve — the mascara streaked, used-up, gave-it-everything-had mess of a woman pouring what’s left her heart and soul into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Bluebirds fly, and so does that scene.
Judy. Directed by Rupert Goold. With Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Rufus Sewell, Andy Nyman, Michael Gambon, and Finn Whitlock. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Parents guide: PG-13 (substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language, and smoking)