A sensational Renée Zellweger stars as the legendary Judy Garland in Rupert Goold's lovingly staged and deeply compassionate biopic "Judy." Too often the legacy of Garland's talent threatens to be overshadowed by the traumas of her life, but with a transformative performance that goes beyond mere mimicry, Zellweger helps find the humanity beneath the notoriety.
Adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter's Tony-nominated stage play "End of the Rainbow" and arriving on the 50th anniversary of Garland's death, "Judy" smartly doesn't attempt a cradle-to-grave retelling of Garland's life. The narrative maintains a tighter focus, taking place during the final year before the actress-singer's death in 1969.
The main throughline of the film sees a middle-aged Garland arriving in London in the winter of 1968. Hired by theater impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon), she's been invited to take up a five-week residency at the glitzy nightclub The Talk of the Town, where she'll perform a sold-out series of nightly concerts.
It was a period of professional struggle for the star, and her reputation as an unreliable performer has made her practically unemployable. Meanwhile a prescription-drug addiction and poor decisions in marriage have left her broke and all but homeless.
She's desperate to earn enough money to maintain custody of her young children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd). As much as she wants to be with them, this much-needed job forces her to leave them in California with her bitter (fourth) ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell).
Fighting her own desperation and shaken confidence, Garland is never entirely sure if her voice will show up when she needs it to. And she doesn't endear herself to the nightclub's band leader (Royce Pierreson) by refusing to rehearse, then turning up late and frequently inebriated to her own shows.
As she struggles to keep her personal demons at bay, she relies on the support of a much younger lover Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) and an endlessly patient wrangler (the wonderful Jessie Buckley, who was recently so great in the Irish musical drama "Wild Rose"), who's tasked with making sure the star gets to the stage each night no matter what state she's in.
Throughout the film, we see brief flashbacks to Garland's teenage years. Born Frances Gumm, Garland (portrayed in her younger years by an excellent Darci Shaw) was a natural born performer, one whose remarkable talent turned into an exploitable commodity within the abusive studio system.
Beginning with her audition for Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz," the role that would launch her to stardom at the age of 16, the flashbacks give us just enough to impress upon us the misery of being a child actor. She's endlessly scrutinized and micromanaged by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who attempts to motivate her through insults to her appearance, and keeps her on a steady diet of uppers and downers to maximize the amount of time she's able to keep performing for the cameras.
Garland spent her entire young life on movie sets, where she was forbidden from eating, socializing with her peers, and barely allowed to sleep. It made for a lonely, exhausting, and often degrading existence. The only companion we ever see her with is frequent co-star Mickey Rooney, who dodges her shy flirtations and reminds her that the studio has made it clear that dating is absolutely verboten.
With a few short scenes we get a clear picture of a childhood that was stolen from her, and that sense of melancholy infuses the film, emphasized by composer Gabriel Yared's rich, restrained score. It contrasts slightly with the sumptuous look of the film, with lovely cinematography by Ole BrattBirkeland and Kave Quinn's tactile production design.
Mostly known for his stage directorial work, Rupert Goold ("True Story") directs the film with a theatrical sensibility. He ensures that the sad narrative never devolves into tabloid misery, capturing the joy Garland found in performing, and spent her life chasing. It's also a pleasure to see musical numbers that aren't cut within an inch of their lives. Even when the script resorts to a few biopic clichés -- particularly late in the film -- Zellweger's bravura performance brings pathos, capturing Garland's stubbornness, strength, her self-deprecating sense of humor, and her vulnerability.
There's a sweet sequence in which Garland meets a gay couple (played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) after one of the shows, and accepts their invitation to join them for dinner. Their presence ultimately gets a little heavy-handed, but serves as a touching tribute to Garland's importance to the gay community.
It's a portrait that's both clear-eyed and generous. In Renée Zellweger empathetic portrayal of the wounded and wobbly Hollywood icon, she imbues "Judy" with the heart and soul of the beloved performer.